Huge US-Backed Solar Plant At Full Power

It’s official. The loan-guarantee-backed 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., is fully commissioned and operating at a whopping capacity of 250 megawatts, making it one of the biggest PV plants in the world, according to owner NRG Energy.

By the way, yes, it is a power plant, not a “ranch.” It is a large industrial enterprise built by engineering and construction giant Bechtel on the Carrizo Plain, a unique grassland about 50 miles long and 10-15 miles wide separated from the Central Valley by a line of peaks called the Temblor Range, a bit of central California (it is midway between Silicon Valley and LA) rarely visited, home to the endangered San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo rats.

california valley solar ranch

California Valley Solar Ranch, on the Carrizo Plain in central California (image via NRG Energy)

And yet environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity seem to feel pretty good about this clean-energy development, all things considered, having worked to gain concessions on the project (and another big project on the plain, called Topaz). To win government approval, the developers had first “agreed to significant commitments to protect and preserve species,” the groups said, and then with the private settlement came “additional environmental benefits”:

  • More than 9,000 acres will be added to the 17,000 acres of land required to be permanently protected and preserved under the permits, resulting in a total of approximately 26,000 acres, or about 40 square miles, of the Carrizo Plain receiving protection as a result of these projects.
  • Thirty miles of fencing will be removed from the area, allowing for greater wildlife movement around the projects. Additional beneficial enhancements will be made to the wildlife-friendly fencing around the solar system arrays.
  • No rodenticides will be used in the construction or operation of the projects, and the solar companies will help fund efforts to eliminate rodenticides on the Carrizo Plain and in other San Joaquin kit fox conservation areas.
  • Topaz and SunPower will make additional significant financial contributions to help San Luis Obispo County acquire lots in the largely undeveloped subdivision in the Carrizo Plain to restore for wildlife conservation.

California Valley Solar Ranch actually consists of a number of fairly distinct arrays of SunPower panels – 10, to be exact. So while the entire site is 4,700 acres, less than a third, 1,500, are covered in panels or buildings. NRG counts the remaining 3,200 acres as “permanently conserved and managed to meet conservation objective for a range of species.”

NRG hit the environmental point hard in its press release announcing the project had powered all the way up (it began producing its first electricity more than a year ago).

“Beyond offsetting carbon emissions and offering clean energy from one of the world’s largest solar facilities, this project’s design takes a leap forward by integrating the surrounding environment in a sustainable manner,” Randy Hickok, senior vice president of NRG Solar, said in a statement. “In addition to its nine solar photovoltaic arrays, CVSR includes a water recycling plant that minimizes annual water use and a plan for protecting and conserving more than 12,000 acres of land in and around the facility.”

Big as California Valley Solar Ranch is, it will soon be dwarfed by other California plants: the 550-megawatt Topaz and the 579-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Projects, about an hour north of Los Angeles, are both under construction.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Jerry Graf

    The Solar Ranch required a $1.2 billion loan guarantee. Was this the entire investment or was there more money required? By itself this is $4.80 per Watt.

    The Solar Ranch is said (rather ambiguously) to provide enough electricity for 42,000 homes. I suppose this is somewhere around 450,000 MWh per year, implying an operating capacity factor of around 21%. Why no exact figures??

    The Solar Ranch covers 1500 acres

    A natural gas CCGT facility capable of 250 MW would have cost about four times less, would be capable of making 4 times the electricity per year, and would fit on less than 1 acre. Assuming complete & total displacement of coal generation (something which the CCGT really can do and the Solar Ranch really cannot) the reduction in annual CO2 emissions provided by a 250MW CCGT facility would be about 2 times more than the Solar Ranch.

    I am not saying that natural gas and CCGT are a panacea; there are issues associated with any form of energy generation; but when we talk about spending $1.2 billion it would seem we would at least also talk about other alternatives that might get us to an equivalent or better solution.

    • Pete Danko

      Given California’s electricity profile, it would be more apt to say that the electricity generated at California Valley Solar Ranch is displacing GHG-emitting natural gas generation.

      • Jerry Graf

        It is true that CA uses less coal generated electricity than most states, and the primary source of electricity in CA is natural gas…..however, in 2012 CA still used 22,685 GWh of electricity generated by coal, most of it imported

        • Pete Danko

          Thanks for the link. Pretty amazing that wind is nearly as big a part of the CA energy mix as coal, 6.3 percent vs. 7.5 percent!

          • Jerry Graf

            Yeah….that is amazing. I wonder how much money was spent on the California wind turbine installations? I wonder how much is being spent to prop up the wind generation projects? I wonder how much more electricity they could be generating if they had considered other alternatives?

            I never said you CAN’T generate electricity with wind turbines and solar panels….of course you CAN. You can also generate electricity with gerbils running on rotating wheels; I guess it just depends on how much electricity you want and how much money you’re willing to throw at it.

            Remember the three questions that no one ever wants to answer:
            How much do they cost to install?
            How much do they cost to operate and maintain?
            How much useful electricity do they provide?

            BTW – California is virtually bankrupt.

          • Pete Danko

            To paraphrase Queen Gertrude, the gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.

          • Jerry Graf

            $1,600,000,000 for 250MW capable of 482,000 MWh per year, Pete…………………………$1,600,000,000.

          • jeffhre

            Sometimes it is not just the volume of what is created but the quality of the results that are significant. At this stage, yes, putting these plants out is expensive. That makes sense considering the learning curves involved. Would Edison’s Pearl st. station would have been more efficient, effective, profitable and cleaner if it was a combined cycle heat and power facility?

            In the evolution of power production, participants will try solutions like CVSR to push out the learning curve. The variable costs of fuel will not be added to the capital costs for CVSR. In other words, there will be no fuel costs to produce the power there, ever. The externalities of pollution, habitat degradation, and distributed deaths and disabilities from respiratory illnesses, are paid for up front, rather than passed on the society at large.

            The value of 12,000 acres of preserved habitat and migratory corridors, while pulling forward the utility scale solar learning curves for the region, are tangible benefits that should be accounted for along with LCOE. After all, there is a demonstrated willingness to pay for species preservation, wildlife habitat and clean air amongst the public, which is just as measurable as the desire to get the most energy per dollar invested.

            Did I mention that in calculating LCOE, there are no fuel costs, in today’s dollars or at expected future (inflated) costs, “EVER.”

            Looking at how much energy can be produced today for a dollar of installed gas fired plants, vs the entire mix of benefits from having a diverse clean energy portfolio, is the difference between instituting good management practices, and truly inspired leadership. One inspires good quarter to quarter results, until something unexpected (like higher natural gas prices) renders the system unsustainable. And the other works toward a cleaner more balanced and ultimately, less costly future.

          • Jerry Graf

            There was no other alternative to Edison’s Pearl St. Station at the time.

            Yes, I recognize that CVSR will use no fuel. In my analysis of the ROI (see my article at the link) I completely ignore all operating and maintenance costs for the facility, and it still can never come close to returning the initial investment,

            How about the “externalities” of the monumental benefits provided by low cost, abundant, and reliable electricity? General health and life-span have been increased dramatically. There have been huge advances in sanitation, transportation, health-care & medicine, industrial production of necessities (and luxuries), food production to feed the masses, etc. etc………..all brought to us by abundant reliable electricity and other forms of energy.

            I have pointed out that CVSR cost $1,600,000,000 for a system that produces a very minor 482,000 MWh of non-continuous, non-dispatchable electricity per year. I have pointed out that we could have produced far more reliable, continuous, dispatchable electricity in other ways and, at the same time, reduced CO2 emissions and other real pollutants much more effectively, for far less money.

            If you are still willing to accept spending $1,600,000,000 for 482,000 MWh per year, then so be it.


          • jeffhre

            Yes, I did read that.

            Solar panels in 1977 were what, a thousand dollars a watt? Today $.80 a watt? Without initial, incremental, subsidized, deployment, it would still be far too high for commercial or roof top deployment.

            In the same respect CVSR, this very small part of California’s grid, is priced quite high. A one off price with subsidies included. This is what could give developers of future systems the scale and experience to build systems when large subsidies no longer exist.

            And in the long run, it’s an incremental down payment on eliminating lost productivity from respiratory disease and dysfunctions that are eliminated by drastic reductions in fossil fuel pollutants.

            Sure, we could continue do things the way they have always been done, for what appears to be a lot less money. Until we can’t.

          • jeffhre

            The alternative to Edison’s Pearl Street station was the marginal cost of the kerosene replaced. Edison’s was probably a very bad investment if analyzed quarter by quarter during deployment of Edison’s first generating systems.

  • Jerry Graf

    Found some better detailed information and posted a more extensive commentary on this subject:

  • Jerry Graf

    The information keeps getting clearer. Per the New York Times the actual full cost is/was $1,600,000,000:

    ………..“The project is also a marvel in another, less obvious way: Taxpayers and ratepayers are providing subsidies worth almost as much as the entire $1.6 billion cost of the project. Similar subsidy packages have been given to 15 other solar- and wind-power electric plants since 2009.

    The government support — which includes loan guarantees, cash grants and contracts that require electric customers to pay higher rates — largely eliminated the risk to the private investors and almost guaranteed them large profits for years to come. The beneficiaries include financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, conglomerates like General Electric, utilities like Exelon and NRG — even Google.”………………………


    • Jerry Graf

      I especially like the part about requiring electric customers to pay higher rates and providing the large investors like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, GE, Exelon, NRG, and Google large guaranteed profits.

  • Tom Moody

    Where is all the huge parking areas that should have solar awnings? Where are all the rail roads that are lined on each side with solar panels and wind generators that could feed D.C. current to the rails, and each of their cars equipped with motor/generators on their wheels? Should not the tremendous power of the tides be harnessed.
    There are so many other sources not mentioned, are even thought of at this time, just waiting to be developed…if the huge warmongering corporate complex had a creative brain.