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State solar power plans are as big as all outdoors

Dickerson is a Times staff writer.

Just up the road, past pump jacks bobbing in California’s storied oil patch, look sharp and you’ll catch a glimpse of the state’s energy future.

Rows of gigantic mirrors covering an area bigger than two football fields have sprouted alongside almond groves near California 99. This is a power plant that uses the sun’s heat to produce electricity for thousands of homes.

Owned by Palo Alto-based Ausra Inc., it’s the first so-called solar thermal facility to open in California in nearly two decades. It’s part of a drive to build clean electricity generation using the sun, wind and other renewable sources with an urgency not seen since the days of environmentalist Gov. Jerry Brown. Add President-elect Barack Obama’s stated intention to push for more renewable power and you’ve got the equivalent of a green land rush.

At least 80 large solar projects are on the drawing board in California, more than in any other place in the country. The scale of some is unrivaled on the planet. One facility planned for the Mojave Desert is projected to take up a land mass the size of Inglewood.

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“The expectation is that renewables will transform California’s electricity system,” said Terry O’Brien, who helps vet sites for new facilities for the California Energy Commission.

It’s a daunting challenge for the world’s eighth-largest economy. Despite the nation’s toughest mandates for boosting green energy and reducing greenhouse gases, California remains addicted to burning fossil fuels to keep the lights on.

Excluding large hydroelectric operations, less than 12% of the state’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2007, according to the energy commission. Solar ranked last, supplying just 0.2% of California’s needs. Rooftop photovoltaic panels are unaffordable or impractical for most Californians even with generous state incentives.

Enter Big Solar.

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Proponents say utility-scale solar is a way to get lots of clean megawatts online quickly, efficiently and at lower costs. Solar thermal plants such as Ausra’s are essentially giant boilers made of glass and steel. They use the sun’s heat to create steam to power turbines that generate electricity.

Costing about 18 cents a kilowatt-hour at present, solar thermal power is roughly 40% cheaper than that generated by the silicon-based panels that sit on the roofs of homes and businesses, according to a June report by Clean Edge Inc. and the Co-op American Foundation. Analysts say improved technology and economies of scale should help lower the cost of solar thermal to about 5 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2025. That would put it on par with coal, the cheap but carbon-spewing fuel that generates about half the nation’s electricity.

Size matters, said Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder-turned-venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, whose Khosla Ventures has invested more than $30 million in Ausra. A square patch of desert about 92 miles long on each side blanketed with Ausra’s technology could generate enough electricity to meet the entire nation’s demand, company executives say.

“Utility-scale solar is probably the only way to achieve real scale . . . and reduce our carbon emissions” significantly, Khosla said.

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Critics fear that massive solar farms would create as many environmental problems as they purport to solve. This new-age electricity still requires old-fashioned power towers and high-voltage lines to get it to people’s homes. A proposed 150-mile transmission line known as the Sunrise Powerlink that would carry renewable power from Imperial County to San Diego has run into stiff resistance from grass-roots groups and environmentalists.

Solar plants require staggering amounts of land, which could threaten fragile ecosystems and mar the stark beauty of America’s deserts. And in contrast to rooftop panels, which enable homeowners to pursue energy independence, these centralized facilities keep consumers tethered to utility companies.

“They are trying to perpetuate the old Big Energy paradigm into the renewable-energy era,” said Sheila Bowers, a Santa Monica attorney and environmental activist. “They have a monopoly agenda.”

California already has the largest operating collection of solar thermal facilities in the world: nine plants totaling just over 350 megawatts in San Bernardino County. Built in the 1980s, they were part of a drive toward energy self-sufficiency stemming from the ‘70s oil shocks. The boom ended when California dropped requirements forcing utilities to buy renewable power.

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The push is back. The 2000-01 energy crisis exposed California’s dependence on outsiders -- more than 30% of its electricity still comes from out of state. Renewable forms of energy are once again central to efforts to shore up supply and fight global warming.

State lawmakers have told investor-owned utilities that they must procure 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing for a minimum of 33% by 2020. A landmark 2006 state law forcing California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels within 12 years also is boosting green generation.

Most of the proposed utility-scale solar plants are slated for San Bernardino and Riverside counties, where vast deserts offer abundant sunshine and plenty of open space for the behemoths. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is juggling so many requests from companies looking to build on federal land -- 79 at last count, covering more than 690,000 acres -- that it had to stop accepting applications for a few weeks last summer.

Many of these facilities may never get built. Environmentalists are mobilizing. U.S. credit markets are in a deep freeze. Oil and natural gas prices are falling, reducing some of the urgency to go green.

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Still, the obstacles haven’t clouded the ambitions of solar start-ups such as Ausra.

“Our investors perceive there is a huge opportunity here,” said Bob Fishman, Ausra’s president and chief executive.

A group of dignitaries that included Schwarzenegger gathered near Bakersfield in October to get a close-up look at the 5-megawatt operation Ausra opened.

The company uses a technology known as a compact linear Fresnel reflector. Acres of mirrors are anchored to metal frames and held roughly 6 feet off the ground in parallel rows. Controlled by computers, these panels make hundreds of barely perceptible movements throughout the day, tracking the sun’s path across the sky.

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The mirrors catch the sun’s rays and reflect them onto a cluster of water pipes overhead. The intense heat -- it can reach 750 degrees -- generates pressurized steam inside the pipes. That steam is then fed into a turbine whose spinning generates electricity.

“It’s like when you were a kid and you used a magnifying glass to fry a bug,” said Dave DeGraaf, vice president of product development. “We’re focusing all that energy.”

Despite its mammoth size, this pilot plant generates a modest amount of electricity, enough to power just 3,500 homes when the sun is shining. Ausra is thinking much bigger.

It has set up a manufacturing facility in Nevada that will supply a 177-megawatt solar plant planned for a site near Carrizo Plain National Monument in eastern San Luis Obispo County. The facility’s mirrors will occupy a full square mile of terrain. The project is still in the permitting process. Ausra has never tried something on this scale. But Pacific Gas & Electric is confident enough that it has agreed to buy the power from Carrizo to help it meet its green energy needs.

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Other companies looking to shine in California with utility-scale plants include Solel Inc., whose proposed 553-megawatt project in the Mojave Desert would span nine square miles; BrightSource Energy Inc. of Oakland; SunPower Corp. of San Jose; OptiSolar Inc. of Hayward, Calif.; Stirling Energy Systems Inc. of Phoenix; and FPL Energy of Juno Beach, Fla.

“Climate change is the greatest challenge that mankind has ever faced,” said Peter Darbee, president and chief executive of Pacific Gas & Electric and head of its parent, San Francisco-based PG&E; Corp. “It’s imperative to seek out the most cost-effective solutions.”

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marla.dickerson@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A bright future?

About 80 utility-scale solar projects are being proposed in California. Here are some of the ones furthest along in the development process.

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AUSRA INC.

Technology: Compact linear Fresnel reflectors

Capacity: 177 megawatts

County: San Luis Obispo

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SOLEL INC.

Technology: Parabolic trough

Capacity: 553 megawatts

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County: San Bernardino

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BRIGHTSOURCE ENERGY INC.

Technology: Power tower

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Capacity: 400 megawatts

County: San Bernardino

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SUNPOWER CORP.

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Technology: Crystalline silicon photovoltaic

Capacity: 250 megawatts

County: San Luis Obispo

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OPTISOLAR INC.

Technology: Thin-film photovoltaic

Capacity: 550 megawatts

County: San Luis Obispo

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STIRLING ENERGY SYSTEMS INC.

Technology: Solar thermal dish

Capacity: 850 megawatts

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County: San Bernardino

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STIRLING ENERGY SYSTEMS INC.

Technology: Solar thermal dish

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Capacity: 900 megawatts

County: Imperial

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FPL ENERGY

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Technology: Parabolic trough

Capacity: 250 megawatts County: Kern

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Source: Times research

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