Solar tower of power coming

EL PASO, TEXAS - Out of the plains of yucca plants and desert grass, a tower will rise. It will be surrounded by a sea of mirrors turning slowing to focus the rays of the sun on the tower’s top.

This is not the vision of a solar cult, but the plan of El Paso Electric Co. to meet its solar-energy quota in New Mexico. The Land of Enchantment has deemed solar power a goal and is requiring El Paso Electric to produce 20 percent of its energy from the sun.

The electric company has selected eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., as its partner.

According to filings with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, El Paso Electric has agreed to buy the full output of a concentrated solar thermal plant that eSolar will build near Deming, N.M. It will be the first commercial-scale facility of its kind in the country and the largest in the nation. All of the 92 megawatts will power the circuits for El Paso Electric customers in southern New Mexico.

“Our state’s smallest investor-owned utility will be the first utility to have a full-scale solar thermal plant in operation,” said Craig O’Hare, special assistant for clean energy in the New Mexico’s Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources. “This is very exciting for the state.”

El Paso Electric referred questions about the specific design of the power plant to eSolar. Closely held eSolar would not comment on its plans.

Ricardo Acosta, resource planning manager for El Paso Electric, was also excited about the power tower.

“It’s kinda cool,” said Acosta, a mechanical engineer and a 29-year veteran of the electric company. “It’s exciting from an engineering standpoint.”

El Paso Electric is also excited that it will meet the growing green regulations. In New Mexico that means 20 percent of its power has got to be green by 2020.

“The 92-megawatt plant is a pretty big step in that direction for El Paso Electric,” said Sandy Jones, the chairman of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.

The solar notion is catching on, particularly in the Southwest and California, where eSolar is building plants to serve Southern California Edison. Other builders of solar systems are laying plans in Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere in New Mexico.

“We’re right on the bubble,” Jones said.

Oil-producing Texas has only lately warmed to solar power, although it’s a leader in wind power. The Texas Legislature has mandated that 5,000 of the state’s 100,000 megawatts must come from renewable energy sources by 2015.

But on April 21, the Texas Senate approved a bill authored by state Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) that would add a surcharge to monthly power bills to create a $500-million fund that would help finance more solar projects. The bill would add 20 cents a month to residential electric bills, $2 to commercial users and $20 for industrial customers. It has an uncertain future before the Texas House.

Fraser envisions solar photovoltaic cells that turn the sun’s energy into electricity. But what El Paso Electric will be buying is energy created from the heat of the sun. The eSolar model is to use hundreds of acres of large mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a tower filled with a thick liquid.

The hot liquid flows through a heat exchanger that causes water to boil, creating steam, which turns a turbine that generates electricity. Using steam may sound old fashioned, but the energy people insist it’s the latest thing.

“These are essentially emerging technologies,” says Dwight Iamberson, an economist in the Utilities Division of the New Mexico Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources. “The more of these that we can get established, the better the technology will get and the cheaper the technology will get. This is a stepping stone into the future.”

Cheaper is important. Typically solar energy costs three or four times as much to produce as energy generated by coal or nuclear power.

Of the emerging solar energy companies, eSolar is one of the most glamorous. It has backing from, the non-profit foundation of the Internet search giant, which is aimed primarily at generating more electrons sans carbon. Google, with its enormous computer-server farms, is a major electricity hog.

And eSolar has other deals in the works, even larger than the Deming plant. Last year it signed an agreement with South California Edison to produce 245 megawatts in California’s Antelope Valley. The solar engineers have promised the power by 2011.

The promise date for El Paso Electric wasn’t available, but New Mexico has a deadline for its new solar standards in 2011.

Oddly, or, maybe, fittingly, El Paso and far west Texas are not part of the same power grid as the rest of Texas. The Texas power grid has no connections across state lines. Making such connections would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulatory control, explained Terry Hadley spokesman of the Texas Public Utilities Commission.

So El Paso looks to the west. It’s connected to the major high-voltage transmission line that runs just north of Deming on its way over the Continental Divide toward Phoenix. This, says Linda Smrkovsky, director of the Luna County Economic Development Corp., is a major reason that eSolar has been looking at the Deming area for the site for its power plant. Another reason: the area is flat. Good for laying down hundreds of acres of mirrors.

“We are interested in the jobs it would create,” Smrkovsky said. “Every 10 megawatts produces at least one local job.”


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