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The World's Largest Concentrated Solar Plant Is Coming to California

Plants like this one can replace coal. The planet might survive after all.

As I've said before, concentrated solar power (the "other" kind of solar—not photovoltaic panels) is a core component of any carbon-free energy future. This week, the United States is one giant step closer to plugging in the world's largest concentrated solar power plant—Brightsource's Ivanpah plant—which will pump out a massive 392 Megawatts of clean, solar energy in the Mojave Desert as soon as 2013. A rendition of the enormous project is above.

The project took a big leap from business plan to reality this week with two serious funding deals. First, Google announced its largest energy investment ever—placing a $168 million bet on Brightsource. The same day, the Department of Energy finalized a whopping $1.6 billion in loan guarantees for the project. "Today's announcement is creating over 1,000 jobs in California," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu, "while laying the foundation for thousands more clean energy jobs across the country in the future."

Not familiar with this core clean energy solution? Here's how I described it a couple years ago:

Whereas photovoltaic panels directly convert sunlight into an electric current, concentrated solar uses the sun's heat energy itself to generate power. [...] The intense heat boils the water, which creates steam. The steam spins a turbine, and-voila!-electricity is generated. Under optimum conditions, the plant can churn out 20 megawatts of juice, enough to power 10,000 homes.


Here's an illustration from our graphics team from a few years back:

So just how big is the potential for concentrated solar? A recent study found that 1,000 square miles of the Mojave Desert devoted to CSP could produce enough energy to power the entire country. On a grander scale, less than one percent of the world's deserts could power the whole world, if transmission lines could accommodate the electricity. In other words, plants like Ivanpah can absolutely replace coal-burning power plants in sunny areas.

Here's Brightsource's test site in Israel, where it's proving the technology.

I found it interesting that the Department of Energy and Google made these funding announcements on the same day. Such public-private cooperation seems to represent the best path forward for clean energy absent any federal legislation or mandate.

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