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DOE shines $1.2 billion on a new solar plant

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Another huge solar project catches a federal budget break. The Energy Department funds SunPower and NRG Solar's 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch.

A former ranch may become one of the largest photovoltaic solar plants in the country. The Department of Energy has given a conditional commitment for up to $1.187 billion in loan guarantees for the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch.

NRG Solar and SunPower's plant might even help PG&E live up to the renewable energy standard passed by California Governor Jerry Brown yesterday. The standard requires the state's utilities to generate 33 percent of their power through solar panels, wind turbines and the like by the end of 2020. Monday's $1.6 billion in loan guarantees to BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar towers should help with that, too.

In addition to building utility-scale plants, SunPower manufactures rooftop solar panels for distributed generation. (Last week the company received a high rating on the solar scorecard, which attempts to quantify how green solar panels are over the course of their lifetime.)

Back on the ranch, construction could start soon, creating a reported 350 jobs. Some of the panels might even be soaking up photons by year's end. Set on tracks, the silicon-based solar panels will tilt as the sun's rays shine from different points in the sky. According to SunPower, these panels are 25 to 30 percent more efficient than panels set in a fixed position. Electricity from the solar ranch could potentially power 100,000 homes in San Luis Obispo County.

The plan is for the solar arrays to cover about 1,900 acres of the 4,365-acre ranch and leave much of the rest as open space. According to the developers, the site is neighbor friendly as well, incorporating aesthetic landscape considerations and wildlife corridors into its design. The project's Environmental Impact Statement is still in the works.

The DOE expects the solar ranch will help avoid around 430,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

Speaking of how the clean energy loan guarantee program narrowly escaped federal budget cuts this week, Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association told Reuters:

The capital markets are still not there to support renewable energy development at the scale we need. None of the projects that are under construction right now would have been able to go forward without this program.

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Images: SunPower

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure