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solar panels on home

NRG to begin building solar plant


By Vic Kolenc
El Paso Times

EL PASO -- NRG Energy plans to begin construction this year on a giant solar plant in the Santa Teresa area to supply electricity to El Paso Electric.

Officials with NRG, a New Jersey power plant developer and operator, would not provide a specific starting date for the project announced in June.

But a pilot project that began operating in July in California for eSolar is providing insights that will help develop the Santa Teresa plant, said David Knox, an NRG spokesman.

The Sierra SunTower, on 20 acres outside Los Angeles, is performing as expected, said Jim Shandalov, vice president of business development for eSolar. The California solar development company is providing the technology for NRG's Santa Teresa plant.

"We built the (Sierra) plant here to show it can be done, and ultimately show others that it works. It makes it bankable -- financeable," Shandalov said. "This takes a significant amount of risk off the table for the New Mexico project."

The 5-megawatt plant, which produces electricity for 4,000 homes, is much smaller than the plant proposed for 450 acres near Santa Teresa industrial parks.

The 92-megawatt Santa Teresa plant is to provide enough power for 30,000 homes. It would be the third-largest solar project in operation in the United States.

When announced in June, the companies said the Santa Teresa plant would use a field of 390,000 computer-controlled mirrors, called heliostats, to concentrate sunlight onto 32 water towers to generate steam. The steam would power generators to make electricity.

The Sierra project has 24,000 mirrors and two towers.

NRG has not said how much the Santa Teresa project will cost. ESolar took a solar technology used in a California demonstration project in the 1980s, and put more computing and processing power into it to make it more cost-effective, Shandalov said.

"We have learned lessons on construction techniques with the Sierra project. We have learned a lot of things along the way. That will be turned into enhancements to be used in New Mexico."

It will take 14 to 16 months to build the Santa Teresa plant. Unless construction begins soon, it may be difficult for NRG to have the plant in operation by the summer of 2011, as originally projected.

El Paso Electric will use electricity from the plant to help meet New Mexico requirements that it get at least 10 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2011, and 20 percent by 2020.

Henry Quintana, an El Paso Electric spokesman, said the company cannot comment on NRG's timeline. No matter when the solar plant goes into operation, the company will meet its requirements for renewable energy, he said. The company is sending out requests for proposals for other renewable energy sources, he said.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at vkolenc(at)elpasotimes.com; 546-6421.

More information: www.esolar.com; nrgenergy.com.

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