The Obama administration is forging ahead with its plans to bolster alternative energy sources in the U.S., advancing a loan of $967 million to help build the world's largest photovoltaic solar generating plant.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Thursday announced the conditional offer to Agua Caliente Solar, LLC.  The loan guarantee will support the construction of a 290-megawatt photovoltaic solar generating facility located in Yuma County, Arizona that will use thin film solar panels manufactured by First Solar, Inc.

The project sponsor, NRG Solar, estimates the project will be the largest photovoltaic generation facility in the world when completed.

The 97-megawatt Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant in Ontario, Canada is currently the world's largest photovoltaic plant.

Solar projects like this are helping the U.S. to compete globally for the clean energy jobs of today and the future, Chu said.  The Obama Administration is committed to bringing innovative renewable energy technologies to the market to support the country's transition to a clean energy economy.

According to NRG estimates, the Agua Caliente Solar project will create 400 construction jobs in addition to generating state and local tax revenues.  The company anticipates the project will avoid approximately 237,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to taking over 40,000 cars off the road annually.

At full capacity, NRG estimates the project will also provide clean, emissions-free electricity for approximately 100,000 homes. 

The Agua Caliente Solar project will deploy fault ride-through and dynamic voltage regulation technologies that are new to solar power plants in the United States.

 These technologies will improve the reliability and predictability of the electricity generated by solar power plants and supplied to the electricity grid, Chu said.  Pacific Gas & Electric Company will purchase power generated from the project and deliver clean, renewable electricity to California consumers. 

Alan Bernheimer, spokesperson for First Solar, explained that these technologies are distinct from the ion-battery storage units being used in other projects to improve transmission of alternative energies into the power grid.

These are two technologies that are already in use in some other forms of generation and help to ensure the reliability and stability of transmission systems, Bernheimer said.

Voltage regulation technologies allow alternative energy transmission devices to adapt to dips in ther voltage levels of the grid, thus avoiding disconnections and slowdowns.

 It is expected that as solar energy power plants reach utility scale with higher rates of market penetration, these technologies will eventually become standard in the solar power industry, Bernheimer said.

Jared Blanton, spokesperson for the Solar Energy industries Association, or SEIA, said that while, currently, less than one percent of U.S. power comes from solar energy, the market is growing rapidly.

While final data is still coming in for Q4, It looks like we will be at or close to 1,000 MW of new solar electric capacity by the end of 2010, Blanton said.

That output includes both photovoltaic, or PV, sources and concentrated solar power, or CSP, sources, he said.

PV technology directly converts sunlight into electric current. CSP systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a concentrated beam.

The largest CSP power plant in the world is the SEGS installation in the Mojave Desert in California, which generates 354 megawatts.

Compare this to just ten years ago in 2000 when the industry added 4-megawatts of new capacity, Blanton said. This growth is expected to continue in the coming years. The SEIA board has set an industry-wide target of installing 10 gigawatts of new capacity every year by 2015. 

The Department of Energy has issued loan guarantees or offered conditional commitments for loan guarantees totaling over $17 billion to support 17 clean energy projects.  Together these projects will produce over 37 million megawatt-hours, enough clean energy to power approximately 3.5 million homes, Chu said.

 Additional DOE-supported projects include two of the world's largest solar thermal projects, the world's largest wind farm and the nation's first nuclear power plant in three decades, Chu said.