By Mark Waite
BEATTY — An inquisitive audience at the Valley Electric Association annual meeting here Saturday heard Clay Jensen, senior director of project development for BrightSource Energy describe their plans for a major solar project on the Tecopa Road 11 miles south of Pahrump.
The computer simulation presented of what the project will look like from the road may not have told the whole story of the size of the gigantic endeavour.
The project involves building 170,000 heliostats, which resemble mirrors, directing solar energy on two solar towers 750 feet tall. The plant will produce 500 megawatts, enough to power 200,000 homes.
Jensen also disclosed his company is looking at acquiring public land from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on the Nevada side of the border, with access to Highway 160 about three miles south of the Tecopa Road.
“This is in very, very early development. We’re seeing what the likelihood of project capacity is in that area,” he said.
Jensen said a move by the VEA board of directors last summer to join the California Independent System of Operators, which controls 80 percent of the California electric grid, put their Tecopa Road project at the top of the list of projects after their Ivanpah project under construction, from the perspective of their corporation and investors. He called it a game changer, an agreement that eliminates state lines as a consideration in permitting renewable energy projects.
“It’s direct access to transmission to California markets. That means a lot more than what it says. It’s one thing to plug in and deliver energy but a lot of what we deal with is a regulatory framework. Even though you’re connected and can deliver electrons to the load, at the end of the day a lot of regulatory red tape says that isn’t so,” Jensen said.
Solar generators wanting to sell power to a utility like Pacific Gas and Electric, the buyer of their megawatts, don’t have to be concerned about controlling factors like political influence and rolling blackouts in approving contracts, he said.
“Without this move, having renewable energy, connected renewable energy built in this area to serve California, I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it would be very difficult,” Jensen said. “It allows system costs to be shared by system users, joining the CAISO allows for network upgrade costs. Those are the costs of upgrades that have to be done to the system to enable the new generator to get to market and the California rate base. It allows for sharing of those costs with the entire California rate base. This provides huge opportunities for building upgrades by having those that benefit from the power, PG&E in California, in this case with Hidden Hills, actually contributing to the cost of those network upgrades.”
But the crowd of 219 VEA members crowded into the Beatty Community Center, fell silent when Jensen fielded a couple of questions about what benefit there would be to the cooperative from VEA building a transmission line for a solar plant across the state line in California, going through Nevada and hooking up to the grid to serve California consumers south of Boulder City.
Valley Electric Association Chief Executive Officer Tom Husted said, “It will be a further utilization of our existing power lines. Our power lines and the continued expansion of our lines will be paid for by the California ISO. As I discussed during our district meetings, right off the bat there’s a $2 million savings to Valley Electric and then increasing as we continue to go forward,” Husted said.
Jensen said BrightSource will also be one of the largest users of VEA power which will be required to operate the plant. He added the economic job benefits.
“The cost to Valley, the system is set up so we cover incremental costs associated with this project. The CAISO deal also provides an opportunity to recover all those costs from California. I would be surprised if there would be costs to VEA we’re not obligated to pay,” Jensen said.
BrightSource estimates the Hidden Hills project will generate 1,000 construction jobs and 120 permanent jobs.
But Jensen said it will be up to their contractor whether or not to sign a labor agreement with the unions, in which case many of the workers would be coming from California. Only 10 percent of the 1,400 construction workers on the Ivanpah project last September were from Nevada.
Jensen said they are shooting for the start of construction in 2013 and operations to begin in 2015.
Solar technology used by BrightSource will be applicable in a number of industries on a global scale, Jensen said, comparing it to NASA spinning off different technologies. The heliostats focus solar energy onto the tower, where water is converted into steam that turns a turbine to create power.
“It’s not really complicated. You use the analogy when you were a kid, when you used to burn ants on a sidewalk with a mirror. We’re creating heat by focusing thousands of mirrors on a tower, turning that water into steam. Once the steam is created we actually operate on temperatures and pressures that are very similar to traditional power plants,” Jensen said.
When there was another question about water usage, Jensen said about 80 percent of the 140 acre feet needed annually for operations at the Hidden Hills project would be used to clean heliostats. The project will use 280 acre feet in the construction phase. An acre foot is enough water to supply two families of five for one year.
While there’s $200 billion in global, thermal opportunities, Jensen said there’s $16 billion in enhanced oil recovery. BrightSource built a project for Chevron in Coalingua, Calif., using solar energy to power the injection of steam to extract oil.
Jensen said there will be little ground disturbance on the 3,275 acres of the Hidden Hills Ranch, as pylons above ground will hold the heliostats. He said two of the mirrors on a single post will be as large as a two car garage. That will be 85,000 two car garages.
Again, Jensen applauded the vision of VEA.
“Two years ago people would’ve said it couldn’t happen. We always referred to Valley Electric — I don’t know if this is a good analogy — it’s the little engine that could. It’s been always steadfast, committed to moving in one direction and every time an issue comes up it just knocks it down,” Jensen said.