A Solar Project Even a President Could Love
At Copper Mountain Solar 1, almost a million solar panels cover more than 450 acres, standing in neat, straight lines on a patch of cleared desert. President Obama will visit the facility today to see of the nation's largest solar projects in person. If renewable energy continues to thrive, this type of power plant that could provide a growing portion of the country’s electricity.
The first panels started going up on this site in June 2008. Sempra U.S. Gas & Power, the company behind the project, called it El Dorado Energy Solar, and when it opened, in January 2009, it was the largest thin-film solar plant in the country. As a rule, thin-film panels convert less sunlight into energy than classic silicon panels, but they’re cheaper to build. In 2008, First Solar, the company that supplied the panels for El Dorado, had broken through an industry barrier: Its panels cost less than $1 per watt to manufacture.
That first El Dorado installation was relatively small, with 167,000 panels and a capacity of 10 megawatts of energy. By the time it opened, though, Sempra was already expanding its solar footprint on the site—by the end of 2010, the company had added another 775,000 panels. The two projects combined made Copper Mountain Solar 1, a 58-megawatt plant that can power about 17,000 average households, the company estimates. The current incarnation is temporary, too: The company is working now on Copper Mountain Solar 2, which will add another 150 megawatts, and planning Copper Mountain Solar North, which will rate up to 220 megawatts.
Sempra, based in San Diego, follows a couple of principles when developing renewable energy projects like this one. All its solar projects so far have been sited on previously disturbed land or in designated energy zones, the company says. Although the sunny desert lands that work so well for solar projects may seem to have little value, they’re rich environments, often populated by endangered species, and are hard to regenerate once the desert surface is cracked and dug up. To minimize solar plants' impacts, then, it's best to place them on desert land that humans have already messed up. Copper Mountain Solar 1, for instance, is built on land once used for agriculture.
Sempra also looks for sites with access to existing transmission lines, which can hook their projects up to the grid with minimum time, expense, and environmental heartache. Copper Mountain Solar 1 lies just outside of Boulder City, Nevada, the site of a massive renewable energy project—the Hoover Dam—and the infrastructure that goes with it.
These solar projects are being built on private, not public land, but government support for renewable energy has still helped shape them. The California utility Pacific Gas & Electric contracted with Sempra to buy the power generated from Copper Mountain Solar 1 for 20 years and the power generated from Copper Mountain Solar 2 for 25. Because California is requiring utilities to source one-third of their power from renewables by 2020, companies like PG&E need renewable supplies like this one. And while this particular project doesn’t bear the black mark of having received a government loan guarantee—the program from which the much-maligned Solyndra benefitted—another of Sempra’s solar projects does. Having already found a buyer for its power, though, it’s unlikely to default on its loan.
Copper Mountain Solar 1 also created green jobs, although not many permanent ones in Boulder City—the plant only requires five people to run. Construction did require 350 temporary laborers, and although some of those people could be working on the next iteration of the project, Copper Mountain Solar 2 doesn’t have quite as many slots. These number don’t match up to the level of job creation projects like the Hoover Dam managed to gin up.
Copper Mountain Solar 1 is a model project; the president wouldn’t be visiting it otherwise. But models provide a template. Projects like this one could be replicated, and they’ll need to be, if clean energy is going to have a chance.
Photo courtesy of Sempra U.S. Gas & Power LLC