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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: Seriously
By rcc on 12/1/2010 5:30:12 PM , Rating: 2
Bottom line is that they object to power generation in any form. It really doesn't matter how it's generated, they think it's bad. Of course some of it is worse in their eyes, like nuclear.

RE: Seriously
By SPOOFE on 12/1/2010 7:33:30 PM , Rating: 3
The truth is that environmental groups are ridiculously splintered. Some are major proponents of nuclear and reprocessing, recognizing the actual, physical boon to the ecosystem it represents. Others have the dogmatic worldview, the belief that Nature is somehow sacred and that "man" is some bastardization, some force or element that is "unnatural" in some way (as if man were the only animal to affect and change his ecosystem!).

The really ugly part is the fact that the looney-toon enviros are completely drowning out the message of the practical guys with their vomit and nonsense.

RE: Seriously
By kattanna on 12/2/2010 11:05:40 AM , Rating: 2
The really ugly part is the fact that the looney-toon enviros are completely drowning out the message of the practical guys with their vomit and nonsense.

you mean like the fanatics of any group?

its long past due for us to start squelching the noise generated by extremists in any group, so the more moderate voices can be heard again

RE: Seriously
By SPOOFE on 12/3/2010 1:53:52 AM , Rating: 2
The pattern follows thusly: For any given fringe movement, there's an incredibly passionate and equally vocal group of people that leads the charge. This is the phase during which the message is polished and honed, the talking points nailed down and disseminated among the faithful. After they've been established as an enduring presence, they need only one major accomplishment (such as Al Gore's Nonsensical Hooplah) to move that fringe closer to the mainstream; counter-arguments to their talking points start to form, but they maintain momentum while the counters are similarly disseminating as their talking points did before.

Eventually, attrition takes it toll, the arguments are swatted down faster than the faithful can vomit new ones, and then there'll be a lull as the whole mess falls to the wayside as a new fringe movement readies to move into the mainstream. Repeat.

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