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Solar power project in Mojave Desert gets $1.4 billion boost from stimulus funds

The Energy Department on Monday announced a “conditional” $1.4 billion loan guarantee for a solar thermal power complex in the Mojave Desert that would ultimately produce as much as 392 megawatts of electricity.

The loan guarantee would be drawn from the resources given to the Energy Department under the economic stimulus bill adopted last year. While the terms of the solar loan guarantee — like the terms of nuclear loan guarantees announced last week — are still being negotiated, the Obama administration highlighted the jobs it said would be created.

BrightSource, the project developer, estimates that during the construction phase, the solar power complex will employ about 1,000 people. Operation of the plant will require 86 permanent jobs. BrightSource’s construction contractor is negotiating labor agreements with various trade unions, the Energy Department said.

Construction could start as early as later this year if BrightSource gets the necessary permits. Earlier this month, the company scaled back the proposed size of the third and final phase of the project because environmental groups had objected to the project’s impact on rare species such as the desert tortoise.

The solar plant is on federally owned land. So, while the Energy Department is seeking to promote the project, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is supposed to be protecting the area.

BrightSource said it would reduce the footprint of the entire complex by 12 percent and cut the maximum power output to 392 megawatts (enough to power 140,000 California homes) from its initial proposal of 440 megawatts.

The plant would generate electricity using heat generated by the sun’s rays. BrightSource plans to erect thousands of “heliostats” on three solar fields. Each heliostat will have two mirrors that track the sun, and reflect it onto a boiler filled with water atop a tower. The boiler will produce steam for a turbine. The company says the mirrors will capture a greater percentage of solar energy than other solar thermal technologies.

The first of three fields is expected to begin construction in the second half of this year and come on line in 2012. The company plans to start commercial operation of the second plant in mid-2013 and the third later that year. Electricity from the project will be sold under long-term power purchase agreements with Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison Co.

BrightSource has $160 million in backing from Silicon Valley venture capital firms, Morgan Stanley, BP, Chevron, Google and others.