PG&E warms to solar, signs contracts for 500 MW

Pacific Gas & Electric has signed contracts to buy 500 megawatts-worth of power from two solar companies, NextEra Energy Resources and Abengoa Solar. The former will depend on huge parabolic mirrors to concentrate sunlight on fluids that produce steam to turn turbines, while the latter will turn to concentrating photovoltaics, using mirrors to saturate electricity-producing solar modules.

Neither of the projects has been built yet. Florida Power and Light-owned NextEra is pitching its 250-megawatt Genesis solar energy plant to be built in two phases spanning 2013 and 2014. Abengoa’s Mojave Solar development will supply the other 250 megawatts and is expected to come online in 2013. The deals came as part of PG&E’s recent power-purchasing binge. All told, it recently bought 830 megawatts-worth of energy from independent producers.

NextEra’s plant, expected to deliver electricity to 80,000 homes in northern and central California, is the first of four in the hopper. The company could cover as many as 200,000 acres of government-owned land with solar-thermal mirrors and liquid heating towers. All together, the facilities would be called the Riverside East solar zone. This plan hasn’t won approval yet, but NextEra has its fingers crossed that this will happen by the end of next year.

NextEra has the distinction of being the largest solar power operator in the U.S., with 310 megawatts under management. It is also versatile, operating 6,600 megawatts of wind-generated energy, through its many subsidiaries. Its ability to win a contract from PG&E is significant because it suggests a trend of solar wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of a very few companies, despite the hundreds of thin-film and other innovations coming out of startups. The big contracts may always keep going to the big fish.

The Genesis plant on its own is predicted to cost upwards of $1 billion — but that’s a price tag many are willing to pay these days for the opportunity to create 1,000 construction-based and 100 long-term jobs. The Abengoa plant is also predicted to create a number of jobs, which is good news for the surrounding areas, but not as good news for the U.S. Solar Industry, as it gives another major win to a Spanish-owned solar company. Germany and Spain continue to assert their dominance in the global solar space, even within U.S. borders.

Abengoa’s Mojave Solar project is expected to power about 90,000 a year once it turns on in 2013. Construction will most likely begin by the end of next year, contingent on whether the company received any stimulus funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Regardless, Abengoa is without a doubt on a roll. It has seven concentrating solar plants in the works and was recently contracted by Xcel Energy to build a demonstration-scale solar thermal plant in Colorado.

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