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California Approves Large-Scale Solar Thermal Plant

After a two-and-half year environmental review, California regulators have approved a license for the 250-megawatt Beacon Solar Energy Project, reports The New York Times. The project is said to be the nation’s first large-scale solar thermal power plant in two decades.

NextEra Energy Resources filed an application in March 2008 to build the Beacon project on 2,012 acres of former farmland in Kern County, which would feature long rows of parabolic mirrors, but some rural residents objected to the 521 million gallons of groundwater the project would consume annually in the Mojave Desert, according to the article. Through negotiations, NextEra agreed to use recycled water that will be piped in from a neighboring community.

This is one of several big solar farms that are expected to receive approval from the California Energy Commission in the next month, according to the article

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also is fast tracking several solar projects. As an example, Chevron Energy Solutions’ proposed 45-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) plant on 516 acres of federal land managed by BLM in the Mojave Desert moved one step closer to being build after clearing its final environmental review by BLM. The Lucerne Valley Solar Project is one of BLM’s “fast-track projects” that demonstrate that they have made sufficient progress to formally start the environmental review and public participation process

What’s driving developers and regulators to license solar plants and start construction by year end is the upcoming expiration of federal incentives for renewable energy projects, according to the article. Three investor-owned utilities also face a deadline to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2010.

However, solar developers with power plants planned in the Mojave Desert have faced significant environmental disputes and have come under fire for their impact on protected wildlife and water supplies. In December 2009, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would protect a million acres of Mojave Desert, putting on hold 13 large solar plants and wind farms at the time that had been proposed for the area.

Earlier in 2009, the California Energy Commission had estimated that as many as 160,000 acres of desert lands in California were needed to meet its 33 percent renewable energy goal by 2020.

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