Solar Millenium announced Monday the company would use a dry cooling system for two, 250-megawatt solar thermal power plants in Amargosa Valley.
The announcement is expected to ease concerns over water use in the Amargosa Valley, an over-appropriated basin.
A wet-cooled system would use 4,600 acre feet of water, company officials estimated during a public hearing in Pahrump last August. An acre foot of water is 325,861 gallons, or enough water to supply two families for a year.
Solar Millenium is the U.S. project development arm of Solar Trust of America.
Solar Trust Chief Executive Officer Uwe T. Schmidt, said in a prepared statement, "Our dry-cooled, solar, thermal, power plants will use 90 percent less water than originally projected, thus conserving and protecting our limited natural resources while ensuring a carbon-free energy source for generations to come."
Solar Millenium has a memorandum of understanding with NV Energy to develop the concentrated solar power plants. The company hopes to break ground on the power plants before the end of 2010 to take advantage of economic recovery money available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The company is using solar technology that will allow it to store energy for several hours after sunset.
Solar Millenium wrote, "The decision to employ dry-cooling technology follows extensive due diligence that took into account unique environmental and ecological considerations including wetlands and wildlife habitats, water conservation and land usage, and state and federal government renewable energy initiatives and policies.
"Following a series of local public hearings and ongoing discussions with regulatory authorities and environmental groups, it was determined that dry cooling was in the best interests of the Amargosa Valley community and its economic development plans."
Josef Eichhammer, president of Solar Trust of America and chief executive officer of Solar Millenium, said, "Solar Millenium has been an active and responsible corporate citizen in Nevada for many years and has worked closely with all stakeholders to address their concerns and arrive at a solution that works for all parties. We trust that this decision to employ dry cooling will accelerate the approval process and enable us to begin construction and stimulate the local economy by December 2010."
Solar Millenium said the proposed power plants will be valued at $1.5.billion each. They are expected to directly employ 800 skilled workers during construction and create 100 permanent jobs. Solar Trust of America expects to indirectly create thousands of jobs more through buying material goods and services.
Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R-Amargosa Valley, said the 4,600 acre feet Solar Millenium would use with a wet-cooled plant is about what his dairy uses. Goedhart said he feels the company wanted to ease concerns raised during the environment impact statement.
"If you own the water you should be able to use it for whatever you do" he said. "But because I think there's an EIS process, which has to be done according to the National Environmental Policy Act, anyone can launch any kind of protest along the way. By them not being able to utilize water, they'll probably add 10 percent cost to their project, and it's probably going to reduce their efficiency on that project by about 10 percent.
"They'll probably have to charge more for their power to make it economically viable. That's all it's going to do is drive up the cost of power."
Solar Millenium officials said previously they would purchase water rights from willing sellers in Amargosa Valley and "raise power instead of alfalfa."
"From what I heard, they had some commitments for purchases of some water," Goedhart said. "They had some oral discussions and agreements but because of all the concerns expressed by Nye County and the rest, they didn't want to let this EIS process bog down into a discussion over water. So they made a very, very huge step."
Nye County commissioners said these projects will require a concerted effort on behalf of the county, state and federal agencies to overcome barriers to development of renewable energy facilities and transmission lines.
But Nye County's resolution notes the Solar Millenium project is located in Amargosa Valley, which has problems associated with development in an arid environment.
"One of the main issues is the availability of water for current and future use, given that the local basins have limited recharge, and existing water supplies are over allocated based on the current amount of water rights issued," the county resolution said. "Any water rights transfers for this project will be adjudicated by the Nevada state engineer. However, the cumulative impact of high water use technologies for multiple plants should be comprehensively addressed during the EIS process."
The Nye County resolution said Solar Millenium will cover 4,350 acres with equipment and mirrors, but the total applications for other solar energy projects in the county will total over 100,000 acres.
"These are large-scale industrial plants, and the cumulative impacts on neighbors, local communities and county infrastructure and services have not been fully identified," the county resolution said.
Nye County Commission Chairman Joni Eastley said representatives of Solar Millenium had mentioned to county officials they would convert their process to dry cooling.
"I think that's huge," she said. "They would use hundreds and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year for the wet process. Some of the protests from the Park Service may disappear now that they're not going to be using all the water they were going to use."
Greg Helseth, U.S. Bureau of Land Management renewable energy project manager, said Solar Millenium had a choice of having a dry-cooled plant, a wet-cooled plant, or nothing at all.
"Maybe they just made a business decision on their own accord to go a direction they feel is more responsible," Helseth said.
During comments on a programmatic EIS for solar energy projects in the western U.S., the Toiyabe chapter of the Sierra Club strongly urged that only dry cooling be allowed on all Nevada sites.
The Nevada Division of Wildlife recommended in areas where acquiring fresh water supplies would be problematic and involve significant water extraction the programmatic EIS should limit projects to a dry-cooling system.
Jason Higgins, director of project development and planning for Solar Millenium, said he wouldn't comment beyond the press release.