SAN FRANCISCO -- The only thing standing between California and the largest solar power plant in the world is four desert tortoises.
The four reptiles will be relocated in the coming weeks to make room for the Blythe Solar Power Project in eastern Riverside County by the end of the year. The plan was approved this week by the Interior Department.
Despite some environmental concerns -- including the displacement of the four tortoises -- many environmental groups applauded the project. To mitigate potential environmental impacts, Solar Millennium will help create more than 8,000 acres of habitat for the desert tortoise, Western burrowing owl, bighorn sheep and fringe-toed lizard.
The project is just one of nine in the state that are racing to meet a deadline set by President Obama's economic stimulus package. Renewable power projects that secure all their permits and start construction by the end of this year can receive a federal grant worth 30 percent of the project's cost, in lieu of taking a tax credit of equal value.
At 6,000 acres, the California project will be the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world, said Bill Keegan, spokesman for Solar Trust of America. It eventually will generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 300,000 homes.
It is the first solar facility to be built on federal land.
"The Blythe Solar Power Project is a major milestone in our nation's renewable energy economy," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. "This project shows in a real way how harnessing our own renewable resources can create good jobs here at home."
The site will use mirror arrays to collect and concentrate sunlight. When focused on a tower filled with liquid at the center of the four separate arrays, that energy will produce steam. The steam will then turn a turbine to generate electricity.
Keegan said he expects the $6 billion project to begin generating power by the second quarter of 2013.
The project could go a long way toward helping California meet its goal to generate a large percentage of its electricity from renewable sources. California law requires the state's investor-owned utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of the year, a target the utilities will almost certainly miss."We are excited about it because it is 1,000 megawatts," said Johanna Wald, director of western renewable projects for the National Resources Defense Council. "It is a real down payment in California's energy future."
Still, Wald said the project's rushed approval process did reveal some flaws that she hoped would be addressed before other projects came forward, as many expect.
This "is an indication that renewable energy is not just part of our future, it is also part of our present," said Bob Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency which manages the land.
The project was developed by Oakland's Solar Millennium LLC, a subsidiary of the Solar Trust of America LLC and Chevron Energy Solutions.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)