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A map of the planned 250 MW solar power plant, showing preserved land (green) and installation area (blue).  (Source: NRG Solar/SunPower)

The plant will be located roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, just south of California's Bay Area.  (Source: Wikipedia)
Plant would take around 15-20 years to break even if electricity was sold at coal power rates

If there's one thing critics and proponents of solar power alike can agree upon, it's that solar power, like any commodity, will go down in price when it is produced at a greater volume.  Recently announced plants, like a 280 mega-watt (MW) installation in the Arizona desert go a long way towards achieving that sort of volume increase.

As does a new 250 MW installation in San Luis Obispo County, California which was formally announced this week.  Construction on the new plant will commence next year and is expected to create 350 construction jobs.

San Luis Obispo is a coastal county that is relatively rural and lightly populated by Californian standards.  It's roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, two of the state's biggest cities.

The new plant will be a joint venture between NRG Solar, Inc. and SunPower Corp. -- two veteran solar power firms (SunPower, alone, will have installed over 1.5 GW of solar power by the year's end).  NRG Solar is expected to pitch in $450M USD over the four year launch period.  NRG will own the plant, it is basically contracting SunPower to design, build, and operate the plant.

The plant will begin producing electricity in late 2011.  By 2012 to 2013 it is expected to reach full capacity, as construction completes.  The plant is expected to provide enough power for 100,000 households.

The new plant is named the "California Valley Solar Ranch". 

NRG Solar is seeking government loans from the U.S. Department of Energy to initially finance the construction.  While U.S. President Barack Obama recently handed out $1.85B USD in grants to solar power projects, the new installation likely will not receive any of this money.

Securing a government loan is critical to the NRG and SunPower's plan.  States Howard Wenger, president of the utility and power plants business group at SunPower, "The DOE is playing a critical leadership role in supporting renewable energy that provides economic and environmental benefits, as well as a secure, stable energy supply in the U.S."

The project has been in the works for the last two years.  It is expected to be operational for at least 25 years.

Challenges to the plant's success remain.  Currently environmental activists in California are vigorously resisting large solar and wind installations, which they fear will damage fragile ecosystems.  They have filed lawsuits to try to block similar projects.

The California Valley Solar Ranch project may placate these critics, thanks to the 2,399 acres it sets aside as a wildlife habitat.  The plant and associated facilities are expected to occupy 1,966 acres of land.

Another challenge is the underlying economics.  While the California Public Utilities Commission has agreed to buy 25 years worth of power from the installation, likely at an inflated price, it remains to be seen exactly how much money the plant will make.  Coal power costs around $0.06-$0.08 USD per kilowatt-hour, so if the solar plant's power was sold at an equivalent rate, it would take around 15 to 20 years for the plant to break even.  Thanks to large markups to alternative energy power, though, it should break even much sooner, boosting NRG Solar and SunPower.  Nonetheless, some consumers may be unhappy with paying this kind of markup so that their power can be "greener".

Still, it's common knowledge that you have to invest up front to gain access to new technology.  And with large scale installations like this new one in California and the currently developing one in Arizona, the cost per kilowatt hour of solar power in the U.S. should fall over the next few years.

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RE: Massive is all relative.
By mcnabney on 12/1/2010 12:13:03 PM , Rating: -1
A new nuclear plant has a construction cost in the billions, plus massive operating, security, and waste management costs.

All this thing does is sit there and a tech comes by if a motor gets jammed.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By FITCamaro on 12/1/2010 12:21:48 PM , Rating: 2
Yes because these plants don't have security protecting them either. And solar panels never fail right? Never get dirty.

A nuclear plant also provides far more power ALL the time at a still far cheaper price.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By kattanna on 12/1/2010 12:23:43 PM , Rating: 2
waste management costs.

and it would not be nearly as much if the nuclear industry here was allowed to GASP.. *RECYCLE* its fuel like they do in france.

plus massive operating, security

All this thing does is sit there and a tech comes by if a motor gets jammed.

well, glad to see you can see past the fallacy of all those 1,000's of "green jobs" that will be created with renewables


RE: Massive is all relative.
By mcnabney on 12/1/2010 12:53:14 PM , Rating: 2
I guess you don't know anything about reactors.

Operating reactors (and even closed ones) store exhausted fuel onsite. We can reprocess it any time they want to. When a plant refuels the spent rods are just moved into an adjacent pool. The 'waste' doesn't add the costs until a reactor shuts down and storage costs must continue.

Now if we DID reprocess that fuel it would have to be transported, probably in a truck driven right down your street, to a specialized facility. Because there are 308 million NIMBYs in this country that is obviously never going to happen. At least blame the real cause of our refusal to reprocess spent fuel.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By Spivonious on 12/1/2010 1:11:14 PM , Rating: 5
They can drive it down my street if they want to. Just make sure the truck is properly shielded.

I would love to see the country move off of coal and onto nuclear.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By TSS on 12/2/2010 9:06:12 AM , Rating: 2
Just make sure the truck is properly shielded.

I don't know about radiation shielding but i doubt it's much of an issue as long as the truck isn't kept at the same spot for hours because of a bunch of protestors.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By Spivonious on 12/2/2010 11:08:34 AM , Rating: 2
Wow, that's intense testing! I really don't understand why the U.S. has such a fear of nuclear power. The waste amounts are small, and aside from a very minor incident at TMI (about 30 minutes from my house, although I wasn't born yet when it happened), there have been no safety issues.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By SPOOFE on 12/3/2010 1:07:12 AM , Rating: 2
Even Three Mile Island was overblown.

It's worse than you describe: People are afraid of nuclear reactors because of freakin' Chernobyl. Nevermind that the circumstances behind that disaster are so ludicrous that it could easily be the script for a lost Marx Bros. film...

RE: Massive is all relative.
By kattanna on 12/1/2010 1:14:06 PM , Rating: 3
Now if we DID reprocess that fuel it would have to be transported, probably in a truck driven right down your street, to a specialized facility

correct. and im still not seeing the issue. france has an awesome safety record of doing just that.

At least blame the real cause of our refusal to reprocess spent fuel.

you mean politicians who have no backbone to stand up to a very vocal minority, over riding the majority? I do.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By namechamps on 12/1/2010 5:08:26 PM , Rating: 4
Now if we DID reprocess that fuel it would have to be transported, probably in a truck driven right down your street, to a specialized facility.

Fear monger much?

Here is a riddle for you. Nuclear plants rotate out roughly 1/3 of the core every 24 months. How does the fuel get TO the 133 nucelar reactors in operation around the country for the last 50 years?

Thats right on specialized trucks. Strangely they don't have to drive through residential areas Why? Oh yeah because both nuclear plants AND the fuel fabrication plants are both outside residential areas.

Every year trucks drive nuclear fuel from fabrication plants to nuclear reactors using highway system. Every year for 5 decades now. Rather routine and safe.

Now imagine you built the reprocessing plant at the same location as the fabrication plant. Truck brings new fuel to reactor, brings back spent fuel*. Closed loop. The same truck which is delivery new fuel will simply have cargo on the return trip.

* Now it isn't spent fuel straight from reactor. Fuel will spend two decades or so in a cooling pond until the vast majority of high radioactive material has burned off. So in essence truck is delivering new fuel and picking up fuel that was used 20 years ago. Still a closed loop though.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By ekv on 12/1/2010 4:43:29 PM , Rating: 2
I believe the plant will be built in the Carrisa Plains area. This is considered an ecologically sensitive area. Not sure why, but it is. One of the proposed plants has already been shot down, as it were, by environmentalists. There is no guarantee this one won't be either, since there are serious concerns ... at the County planning level.

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