NextEra’s next solar plant will be PV

As it begins construction on its 250-megawatt Genesis solar thermal project east of the Coachella Valley, NextEra Energy has its second desert solar plant in the works.

The company has filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management for a 750-megawatt photovoltaic plant, called the McCoy Solar Energy Project, to be located 13 miles northwest of Blythe. The BLM filed a notice of the application in the Federal Register earlier this week, which means the official scoping period has begun, during which the agency collects public input on what issues it needs to look at for its official environmental impact report.  The deadline to submit comments to the agency for this round will be Sept. 28.

The available information on McCoy thus far is sketchy.  The project site includes 7,700 acres of public land and 470 acres of private land, which means the BLM will have to partner with Riverside County for the environmental impact report.  To connect to the grid, the project will need a 16-mile tie-line to connect with Southern California Edison’s Colorado River substation, and the right of way for that line will include both public and private land.

According to the company’s initial application, the McCoy project would generate enough electricity to power 225,000 homes. On the jobs front, NextEra estimates it about 600 jobs during peak construction and 13-20  for ongoing operation.

The fact that NextEra has chosen photovoltaic panels over solar thermal for this second project reflects the ongoing shift to PV for utility-scale solar plants — a trend driven by the plunging costs of panels and, hopefully, an easier permitting process.

NextEra had a difficult time permitting Genesis as solar thermal, primarily over water issues. Solar thermal requires a lot of water, and NextEra originally planned Genesis using the most water-intensive “wet cooling” technology, which led to long wrangles over whether the project would tap into the Colorado River aquifer. The BLM pushed back and the company had to change to more water-efficient “dry cooling” technology to get the project approved.

The tradeoff here is that while PV uses almost no water, it isn’t as reliable a power source as solar thermal, which uses heat from solar troughs to run steam turbines. The turbines create a smoother power flow compared to the spikier electricity coming from PV panels that convert sunlight directly to electricity.

While it is impossible to know at this point,  in the past, the BLM has held at least two public scoping meetings per project on the solar plants it has already approved in the Riverside East solar zone — one in the Coachella Valley, usually at UCR Palm Desert, and one in Blythe.  Given the Sept. 28 deadline, whatever’s going to happen will likely be happening soon.

I will be following up on this next week along with First Solar’s Desert Sunlight project to see how many valley residents have gotten call backs from the job fairs the company held almost three weeks ago.

Here’s hoping the Labor Day weekend will be followed by green jobs for some of the 1,200 valley job seekers who turned out at the Spotlight 29 Casino to apply for work on Desert Sunlight last month.


 

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