Terry Pierson / AP

World’s largest solar plant opens in California

Desert Sunlight can power 160,000 homes and follows last year’s launch of Ivanpah solar project in Mojave Desert

The world's largest solar plant began producing electricity this week in California’s Riverside County desert, as a series of successful, federally-backed utility projects show sunlight becoming an increasingly competitive energy source.

Gov. Jerry Brown has called on California to increase green electricity up to 50 percent by 2030, up from the current goal of 33 percent by 2020. His call came about a month before Monday’s dedication of the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm — which can power up to 160,000 homes.

The majority of state governments now require a significant portion of electricity to come from renewable sources, and President Barack Obama has pledged action to speed a transition to clean energy.

"Solar projects like Desert Sunlight are helping create American jobs, develop domestic renewable energy and cut carbon pollution," U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement issued Monday. "I applaud the project proponents for their vision and entrepreneurial spirit to build this solar project, and commend Gov. Brown for implementing policies that take action on climate change and help move our nation toward a renewable energy future."

The project’s launch follows the opening of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System — which can power up to 140,000 homes — last year in California’s Mojave Desert. Nationwide the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved 52 large renewable energy projects, including 29 solar plants, since 2009.

Desert Sunlight is constructed on about 4,000 acres of federal land and is owned by NextEra Energy Resources, GE Energy Financial Services and Sumitomo Corporation of America. First Solar, an Arizona-based energy company, is building and operating the plant, according to the California Energy Commission.

The project was made possible through federal loan guarantees amounting to $1.5 billion. The Energy Department said Monday it has provided a total of $4.6 billion in such guarantees to support five large photovoltaic solar projects including Ivanpah in the Southwest, at a time when developers were struggling to obtain financing.

Commercial lenders were not willing to approve loans for such projects because solar plants had not been built at that large a scale in the U.S. before, the Department of Energy said on its website. It said all five projects for which it provided loan guarantees are generating clean electricity and repaying loans.

Today the United States has enough solar projects to power 1.4 million average American homes, according to the Department of Energy.

“The U.S. brings as much solar power online every three weeks as it did in all of 2008,” the department’s website said. “Desert Sunlight … represents nearly half of solar power installed in all of 2008.”

Solar power's rapid growth in recent years has been largely spurred by government targets for renewable energy production and carbon dioxide emission controls, and the International Energy Agency has said that solar energy could be the world's biggest source of electricity by 2050.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he aims to raise $2 billion from the private sector for investments in renewable energy. The aim of the Clean Energy Investment Initiative is to spur development of low-carbon technologies and energy sources including solar panels, wind power and advanced batteries.

Though low oil prices have prompted doubts about the solar industry’s ability to remain competitive and continue to grow, many analysts say oil and solar represent separate, non-competing markets and therefore solar’s expansion won’t likely be affected.

The price of solar energy is widely expected to become increasingly competitive compared to other sources of electricity. The costs of producing solar energy are closer to those of other forms of energy when when subsidies meant to support the solar industry are subtracted.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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