Solar power heats up: Another plant planned for Southwest

If the story sounds familiar, it should.

A giant Spanish company contracts to build a solar power plant that will generate electricity for a Southwestern utility.

Abengoa Solar, a subsidiary of a similarly named technology company based in Seville, Spain, and Arizona Public Service on Thursday announced plans to build a 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix.

Just last summer, another Spanish company, Acciona Energy, completed the 64-megawatt Nevada Solar One plant at Boulder City. The Boulder City plant sells power to Nevada Power Co. of Las Vegas and Sierra Pacific Power Co. of Reno.

“Nevada Solar One is a good showcase project that has stimulated interest in doing similar projects,” Tom Fair, renewable power executive for the Nevada utilities, said in a statement.

The developers of the Arizona solar generating station didn’t decide to build the project because of Acciona’s success, however, Abengoa Solar CEO Santiago Seage said. Abengoa has been building solar thermal power generation plants for 20 years and has installed them in Spain, Morocco and Algeria, Seage said.

Solano, as the Abengoa plant is called, is expected to start producing electricity by 2011. If it were operating today, it would be the largest solar thermal plant in the world, according to Abengoa. The plant will generate enough power to supply 70,000 homes.

Electric power customers in the Southwest, including Southern Nevada, are getting more and more power from the sun. Solar power plants are popping up around the region. And utilities are starting to contract for solar power as their customer bases continue to grow and as they encounter more opposition to coal-fired and natural gas-fired power projects.

The plant will help the Arizona utility meet its peak power demands.

“This plant is big enough that it’s going to help to meet growth in the next few years,” Gotfried said.

Seage said Abengoa is interested in building a solar thermal plant in Southern Nevada, too. Like central Arizona, Southern Nevada’s blazing summer heat enables solar plants to operate more efficiently than they would in cooler climates.

Solano will use parabolic mirrors to follow the sun across the sky and concentrate its energy, heating a fluid to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and using the fluid to make steam that will spin turbines to generate electricity. The plant will use an unspecified heat storage technology so the plant can continue generating electricity for six hours after sunset.

Abengoa declined to disclose what price it will charge the Arizona utility for power under a 30-year power supply contract.

Seage, however, compared the cost to that of power from conventional natural-gas-fired plants.

Seage believes the government will start putting more restrictions on pollution at gas-fired plants, making the price of power from gas more expensive. At the same time, the cost of solar thermal power will drop as more plants like Solano are built, he said.

The project will bring economic benefits, too. During three years of construction, it will employ 1,500 workers at the 1,900-acre site near Gila Bend. After completion, 80 permanent employees will work at Solano.

Abengoa plans to build a mirror manufacturing facility that will employ 100 workers at a yet-to-be-determined location in the Southwestern United States. Steel structures needed for Solano will be made at an existing Abengoa plant near Monterrey, Mexico.

Abengoa is preparing plans and seeking permits for Solano, but Seage said the company won’t start building the plant unless Congress extends the investment tax credit for solar power for about four years. An existing tax credit expires this year.

It’s common for interest groups to say projects and programs will not proceed without congressional action, said Martin Lobel, a former aide to the late Sen. William Proxmire.

Lobel wasn’t sure the tax credit would be extended for solar power, because the country faces huge deficits.

“Everybody likes renewables, and the Republicans love tax credits,” Lobel said. Yet, “we’re so broke I have no idea (whether solar tax credits will be extended).”

Nevada Power Co. is working with Arizona Public Service and other utilities to build a 250-megawatt solar power plant. An independent company will be selected to build and operate the solar plant in a yet-to-be-selected location, said Arizona Public Service spokesman Steven Gotfried.

“We are going to be participating in solar energy as a buyer and possibly as an investor in the future,” Fair said.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0420.

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