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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 Rasterman on 12/1/2010 12:15:25 PM , Rating: 1
I agree but you got to start somewhere. We really just need to reduce the power distribution infrastructure by putting as much solar on buildings as possible. Since once you have the system online your maintenance costs are very small. Reducing the complexity, ugliness, and power losses in the millions of power lines, transformers, and substations would be great. It would also eliminate a single point of failure for an entire areas power and not use any extra land.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By FITCamaro on 12/1/2010 12:19:47 PM , Rating: 2
No one is against a building putting solar panels on its roof. As long as its whoever owns the building paying for them. Not the rest of us.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By Rasterman on 12/1/2010 12:28:35 PM , Rating: 1
What you and others probably don't realize is you have been paying TRILLIONS for coal, oil, and gas subsidies for 80 years, so why in the hell wouldn't you want to pay for solar subsidies instead? Rather than sending our gas tax subsidies to fat cat politicians and Saudi Arabia, we could use them to eliminate our dependence on the power system and oil.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By kattanna on 12/1/2010 12:53:19 PM , Rating: 4
please learn to do some basic math

save $36.5 billion over 10 years

thats $3.65 billion a year

and even if i was to use that number to go back 80 years, which is simply not in line with reality, it still only adds up to

$292 billion a FAR cry from TRILLIONS!!!

RE: Massive is all relative.
By ebakke on 12/1/2010 1:26:11 PM , Rating: 4
What you and others probably don't realize is you have been paying TRILLIONS for coal, oil, and gas subsidies for 80 years, so why in the hell wouldn't you want to pay for solar subsidies instead?
Really? As if those are my two choices? Subsidize this, or subsidize that? Here's a crazy idea... STOP THE SUBSIDIES! Let me pick what I want to spend my money on.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By SPOOFE on 12/1/2010 7:21:05 PM , Rating: 3
Moreso, we recognize how difficult it is to eliminate a subsidy or entitlement once it's enacted; that should make us very wary of enacting even more of 'em!

RE: Massive is all relative.
By ekv on 12/1/2010 4:25:03 PM , Rating: 2
Rick Santelli, not exactly a conservative (read "Democrat"), said it best ...

Stop spending. Or at least slow down (a lot).

And btw, there are companies that WANT to build nuclear reactors. Why not streamline, i.e. fast-track, the approval process.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By FITCamaro on 12/2/2010 8:45:39 AM , Rating: 2
Tax breaks for the businesses R&D, setup, etc (which every other business gets) does not equal subsidies. Giving money to a business for the use of one product over another does.

And the amount of money earned for the federal government FAR exceeds the money "spent". This is not the case with solar and likely never will be. Where's your hatred for the fact that the federal government makes more off a gallon of gas than the oil companies themselves.

What you want is to treat the oil, gas, and coal companies different than other businesses. Those tax breaks and credits are the same as any other business gets for research, set up costs, etc.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By namechamps on 12/1/2010 12:25:34 PM , Rating: 2
I agree but two important issues:

1) Giant solar arrays miles away from usage does nothing to reduce or improve infrastructure challenge.

2) No problem with people putting solar on thier homes but a subsidy is simply a transfer of wealth. It is green welfare. Without subsidy a PV array on your home will never break even.

So we are merely talking wealth from one group of people (those who don't want or can't afford solar) and giving it to another group of people generally high income home owners. It is welfare. No different than someone collecting a welfare check.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By mcnabney on 12/1/2010 12:44:54 PM , Rating: 2
And this is different from the following in what way?

Child tax credit
Earned Income tax credit
Mortgage interest deductions
Charitable contribution deductions
Education credits and deductions
Disability credit

RE: Massive is all relative.
By SPOOFE on 12/1/2010 7:24:34 PM , Rating: 2
None of those are heavily supported by baseless propaganda revolving around a creative doomsday scenario in which Mother Nature exacts her bloody vengeance on an ungrateful populace?

RE: Massive is all relative.
By FITCamaro on 12/1/2010 10:03:49 PM , Rating: 2
None of those other credits promotes the purchase of one type of product over another.

And the disability credit and charitable contribution deduction? Really? I look forward to your argument as to why these things should end.

But I for one would love the lack of earned income credit to end.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By rcc on 12/1/2010 5:23:54 PM , Rating: 2
So, how does that reduce the power distribution infrastucture? Since the building still needs to run during storms, or occassionally at night, you still need all the same power distribution. It will just be under utilized during peak solar production hours.

However, you are correct, while the solar is producing, the distribution loss for that portion of the power use would be less.

"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard

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