(07-25) 17:42 PDT San Francisco (AP) --
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. announced plans Wednesday to
buy enough electricity to power 400,000 homes from a masssive solar
park covering up to nine square miles in California's Mojave Desert.
The San Francisco-based utility signed a 25-year contract with Solel
Solar Systems, based in Beit Shemesh, Israel, to purchase 553 megawatts
of electricity — equivalent to the amount generated by a large
coal-fired power plant. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The Mojave Solar Park, estimated to cost $2 billion, would
dwarf the largest solar plants operating today, which generate less
than 100 megawatts of electricity.
Solel, which would build and operate the
park, still needs approval from California's Public Utilities
Commission, Energy Commission and other state and local agencies. But Solel
and PG&E officials said they were confident state regulators would
support the project because it would help California reach its
"Preliminary research suggests the environmental impact will
be minimal," said Keely Wachs, a spokesman for PG&E, which supplies
electricity to 5.1 million customers in northern and central California.
Company officials hope to begin constructing the park in 2009
and begin generating carbon-free electricity in 2011. Three sites are
being considered for the project, which would cover up to 6,000 acres
and use transmission lines formerly used by a now-defunct coal plant
near Laughlin, Nev.
The contract filed with the PUC Wednesday would help PG&E
comply with a state law that requires electric utilities to secure at
least 20 percent of their electricity supplies from renewable energy
sources such as wind and solar by 2010.
The plant would employ solar-thermal technology that would
use 1.2 million mirrors to harness the desert sun's power. Rows of
trough-like mirrors would heat fluid that generates steam, powering
turbines that produce electricity that would be fed into PG&E's
Currently, most solar power projects use photovoltaic
technology in which electricity is generated onsite from rooftop panels
on homes, businesses and public buildings. California is pushing
photovoltaics with its "Million Solar Roofs" initiative that offers $3
billion in rebates to install solar panels.
Solar-thermal is less expensive and easier to build at a large-scale than photovoltaic technology, officials said.
"We see solar-thermal as one of the most promising sources of renewable energy," Wachs said.
Solel, one of the world's largest
solar-thermal companies, is building similar projects in Israel and
southern Spain. Nine plants using Solel technology currently generate 354 megawatts of electricity in the Mojave Desert.
"The sun is shining there at a very high intensity," making it one of the best locations for solar-thermal power, said Solel CEO Avi Brenmiller.
Two years ago, Southern California Edison signed a contract
with Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems to secure 500 megawatts of
electricity from a 4,500-acre solar-thermal project in the California
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