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Place to put facility yet to be determined

Sep 8, 2005 - Craig D. Rose - Union-Tribune

San Diego Gas & Electric announced yesterday it had contracted with a Phoenix company to buy electricity from what could be the largest solar power generating project in the world.

Sandia National Laboratories
A Stirling Energy Systems installation at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. The technology uses mirrors that direct the heat of the sun onto a central engine.

The generating facility will be among the first to use a new solar technology said to double the efficiency of other approaches and initially generate up to 300 megawatts of electricity, enough to power nearly 300,000 homes.

SDG&E and Stirling Energy Systems, the Phoenix company building the project, say there is also an option to expand the project to 900 megawatts. The project will be located somewhere in the Imperial Valley desert - an exact location has not been decided - and begin producing electricity in 2008, with completion set for 2012 if the expansion option is fully exercised.

The proposal must be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission to proceed.

Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said that Stirling announced an 850-megawatt project last month using the same technology with Southern California Edison. The SDG&E and Edison projects combined would roughly triple U.S. solar electric generating capacity, he said.

"This is a huge milestone for solar," Resch said. >

He added that the projects could create economies of scale and drive down costs to the point where solar concentrating technology could be economically applied on a smaller scale.

James Avery, a senior vice president of SDG&E, said the first phase of the solar project planned for Imperial County would boost the percentage of electricity the local utility derives from renewable sources to 9 percent, up from 5.5 percent currently.

If the project is expanded to 900 megawatts, SDG&E's renewables would rise to 17 percent of its total generating capacity.

Stirling's technology uses an array of mirrors that direct the heat of the sun onto a central engine. The engine's dual pistons move in response to heating and cooling and drive a generator. The so-called solar-thermal technology was developed in federal laboratories and has been demonstrated at a handful of locations in the United States and abroad, the company said.

Bruce Osborn, chief executive of Stirling, said the improved efficiency lowers the cost of producing electricity to new levels.

"So no state price supports are needed," Osborn said.

The SDG&E project will require about 12,000 of the Stirling engine clusters, covering about 3 square miles in the desert.

To transmit the electricity generated to customers in San Diego, SDG&E said it would be necessary to build a new power link across the desert, a 1,000 megawatt transmission line that the utility previously said it was planning.

The local utility is required by state law to obtain 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2017. But SDG&E says it hopes to reach a goal of 20 percent renewables by 2010 set by the PUC.

Financial details of the solar generating project were not announced yesterday, but Avery said that the economics of renewable energy have improved.

"We have been able to negotiate a price that is competitive with electricity generated from fossil fuels," Avery said. "We used to pay a 10, 20 or even 30 percent premium for renewables in the past."

At least a part of that shrinking differential is because of the soaring cost of fossil fuels, in particular natural gas. The cost of natural gas, the primary fuel generating electricity in California, has more than doubled in the past year.

The executive director of a local utility watchdog group said he welcomed the solar project.

"This is a good project," said Michael Shames of the Utility Consumers' Action Network. "This is a worthwhile technology and a good contract."

Shames added, however, that the solar project location was flexible and that it could be serviced by a more modest new power link than the one proposed by SDG&E. The larger new transmission line proposed by the local utility, Shames said, would serve the needs of Sempra Energy – SDG&E's parent company - more than local customers.

The consumer group says the proposed major transmission project, which would be paid for by utility customers, would allow Sempra to move electricity from plants it has in Mexico and Arizona to areas north of San Diego, broadening the market for that power.

But SDG&;E says the power line it proposes would primarily benefit the 1.3 million consumers it serves in San Diego by providing access to cheaper sources of electricity and improving reliability.


Updated: 2003/07/28