Calif. breaks ground on new solar energy projects

June 17, 2011 9:12:56 PM PDT
Two major groundbreaking ceremonies were held Friday for solar projects in California. Both use the sun, but they involve very different technologies and experts disagree on which one represents the future.

Santa Clara County is installing solar cells on the roofs of several government buildings. It is the first part of a regional effort to get public agencies in the Silicon Valley working together on renewable energy.

"It's hard to do because you have to do it in conjunction with the private sector and you have to work out complicated multi-user agreements and Santa Clara is the first to pull it off," Joint Venture Silicon Valley spokesperson Russell Hancock said.

The $20 million project will be paid for by energy bonds.

UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller believes this kind of technology has a great future.

"The price of solar cells has been dropping every year; it's been going down by about 7 percent per year," Muller said.

But Muller, author of a book called "Physics for Future Presidents," is skeptical about another solar project that broke ground Riverside County Friday. That one is planned to be the largest solar energy facility in the world.

"And it's only the beginning; California can make a major contribution to our jobs and energy future," Gov. Jerry Brown said at the groundbreaking ceremony.

But it is a solar thermal project. Instead of photo-voltaic cells, it uses mirrors to reflect sunlight, heat oil and create steam.

"It's a very expensive way to go," Muller said. "Solar thermal costs about 19 cents per kilowatt hour, natural gas in contrast is 6 cents per kilowatt hour."

Muller says government subsidies are fueling proposals for solar plants like the one that will be built in Riverside County. But when the subsidies stop, he cautions, the government will not pay to keep the plants running.

The governor does not see it like that.

"We have to exercise fiscal discipline by being very careful with tax dollars, but we have to invest in American jobs, in new technology and in our solar future," Brown said.

Brown says the solar project in Riverside is so big that when it is finished, it will double the world's capacity for solar electricity. And he says it will use California sun, not Texas oil.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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