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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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This should be built in space.
By Binkt on 12/1/2010 1:29:13 PM , Rating: 2
Why are we continuing to waste resources on "green" make-work projects like this and wind power when the clear solution to our power gathering needs lies in a space-based solar power station? An additional benefit for having power gathering and beaming infrastructure in space is that it will enable new space industries which will pull our collective economic asses out of the fire. I am really getting tired of this lack of leadership here in the US. At this point the barriers are purely political.

RE: This should be built in space.
By MindParadox on 12/1/2010 3:55:54 PM , Rating: 2
ya know, id think the power beaming part of the whole thing would be the hardest problem, sure, you can broadcast energy thru the air, but in focused "beams" itd be hard to do.

altho, a giant solar array in space that could be attached to say, a portable energy storage system that could be retrieved would be nice, or even, now that people have stopped laughing, we could get on with the space elevator(or even just a power cord from a geosynchronous satellite)

RE: This should be built in space.
By Binkt on 12/1/2010 4:05:42 PM , Rating: 2
ya know, id think the power beaming part of the whole thing would be the hardest problem, sure, you can broadcast energy thru the air, but in focused "beams" itd be hard to do.

Not so my friend, Power beaming via microwave or laser is a solved problem with the added benefit that such a beam can be steered to where it is most needed. An installation in orbit would be able to beam energy to satellites to help them maintain orbit without reaction mass. That alone would be a huge boost to our space economy.

By drank12quartsstrohsbeer on 12/1/2010 6:49:47 PM , Rating: 2
It would also make a convenient death-ray

RE: This should be built in space.
By kattanna on 12/2/2010 11:25:36 AM , Rating: 2
now that people have stopped laughing

not true, im still laughing my ass off

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