SEMPRA takes solar
power lead with 48 MW Nevada project
Generation has moved into solar power in a significant way, having
recently completed the largest photovoltaic solar project in the
U.S.—the massive 48 megawatt Copper Mountain project in
Boulder City, Nevada.
California-based Sempra Generation is getting into solar power in a big
In 2007, the company was considering adding renewable energy to its
portfolio, and this past December, it completed the Copper Mountain
Solar project, the country's largest photovoltaic solar power plant.
Located in Boulder City, Nevada, it produces 48 megawatts from 750,000
solar panels spread out over 380 acres.
The solar project began as a 10 MW pilot project in 2008. Sempra used
First Solar as the contractor and sold the energy to one of
California's utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric.
"Pacific Gas and Electric was interested in buying more solar from us,
and we had enough land at this site to put on an additional 48 megawatt
project. So we ended up signing an agreement to sell them that power
for 20 years," says William Engelbrecht, vice president of planning and
construction with Sempra.
Sempra again turned to First Solar as the contractor for the
large-scale project. Luckily, since Sempra had already leased the
necessary land, and because Boulder City had a "solar zone" in place,
permitting went quickly.
"We started construction in January of 2010 and finished in December of
2010," says Engelbrecht. "It was a massive project to install in less
than a year's time, and of course, the most important part of the
project was the safety aspect."
Safety comes first with every Sempra project, he says. "With a project
of this size, getting every worker home each night to their family is
our key priority," says Engelbrecht.
To the average person, putting in a solar facility wouldn't seem like a
particularly dangerous endeavor. But it's the repetition of tasks that
can lead to safety issues.
"We put in over 100,000 steel posts, and on each post, we had an angle
bracket, and then on each angle bracket, we had a table, which is
effectively the structure that supports the portable panels. Once the
table is on the angle bracket, the panels go onto the table," explains
Engelbrecht. "As you can imagine with around 750,000 of these panels,
it can be a very monotonous job. The safety hazard is that people
Throughout the project, if any safety issues arose, they were dealt
with immediately. For example, when it became apparent that workers
were getting small cuts on their forearms from lifting panels out of
the shipping crates, longer gloves were used so the glass wouldn't
touch their arms.
"Between Sempra and First Solar, the safety record was outstanding at
this project," says Engelbrecht. "In fact, based on safety metrics,
this project achieved a world-class safety record."
That's also quite an accomplishment when you consider there were
approximately 350 workers on the site at the peak of construction.
Sempra and First Solar have another reason to be proud—Copper
Mountain Solar was chosen from over 200 applicants to receive a Solar
Project of the Year award.
Engelbrecht says there were a number of reasons they were
chosen. "I think they saw our safety record, the size of the
project, and also the speed in which the project was built." That speed
was a result, in part, of a lot of pre-planning between Sempra
Generation and First Solar. It was also the result, Engelbrecht says,
of timely deliveries.
There wasn't a lot of on-site storage, and First Solar held panels at
their production facility in Malaysia and delivered them as needed. It
was a lot of deliveries but allowed for a steady flow and quick set up."
Accessibility also played a key role in Copper Mountain's timely
construction. "Because we have a 480 MW gas-fired combined cycle plant
right next door, the infrastructure was already there as far as the
roads and everything else," says Engelbrecht. "If we were developing a
new site, we would have had to spend a little more upfront time putting
in that infrastructure."
Even small challenges like turtles didn't slow up the crew. The project
was going up in the middle of a desert, and turtle fencing was required
to keep the desert tortoises out during construction.
The Copper Mountain solar
project is made up of 750,000 solar panels spread out over 380 acres.
The massive project was completed in less than a year's time, with
construction starting in January 2010, and the project completed in
"Even with the turtle fencing, we still had five tortoises come onto
the site," says Engelbrecht. "We had it pre-arranged with a local group
to come pick up those tortoises, if we found them, and then take them
to a new home."
That's another safety consideration, he adds. "One of those safety
things we talk to every worker about is being aware of critters."
When all was said and done, the project didn't just come in on time; it
was completed ahead of time. The original project's schedule was to
have the facility up and running in March or April of
2011—and due to great coordination efforts with First Solar,
it was up and running in
Every time a company builds a project, it's partially a learning
experience. It was no different for Sempra Generation and First Solar.
They applied lessons they learned from the 10MW pilot project to the
Copper Mountain plant.
For example, to avoid bottlenecks on this project, First Solar brought
in more, and smaller, post drivers than were used on the 10 MW pilot
project. And instead of constructing tables on the site, preassembled
tables were delivered, straightened, and placed on the angle
The changes weren't large, but they added up to create better
efficiencies, a safer working environment, and ultimately a more
"And, of course, what we learned on this project we'll take to the
next," says Engelbrecht.
Incentive packages, coupled with Boulder City's unique zoning laws,
made the project possible.
Sempra was able to attain some tax abatements through the State of
Nevada. Also a big help were the federal tax credit and the investment
tax credit on the construction. But it's Boulder City's "solar zone"
that set the project apart from others.
Boulder City had land unusable for other development. The desert land
receives 330+ days of sun, is accessible to transmission, and is
tailor-made for solar power. Recognizing the solar resource in their
backyard, the city created a solar zone as an incentive to build solar
Boulder City also made themselves a valuable partner. "The town is
exceptionally great at communicating; there are no surprises, and
they're genuinely interested and enthusiastic and want us there, and
that makes a huge difference," says Engelbrecht. "In addition, Mayor
Roger Tobler is extremely supportive of projects like this. It made a
big difference having the mayor behind us with such support."
Sempra now has a 20-year contract with Pacific Gas and Electric for the
facility and the 10 MW power plant, but it won't be the last contract.
"We're about to start construction on a 150 MW project in Arizona, and
that power is also going to Pacific Gas and Electric," says
Engelbrecht.Yes, you heard right—150 MW. That's enough
wattage to power over 56,000 homes. Sempra is preparing to break its
This is just the start. Sempra Generation is ready to embrace solar on
a large scale. "We have well over 1,000 megawatts in our solar pipeline
of projects we're developing," says Engelbrecht. "Our Mesquite
project—the 150 MW project in Arizona —is simply
phase one. The site is actually large enough to accommodate 600 to 700
MW of solar.
"We have a site up in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles that's
capable of 200 to 300 megawatts, and we're looking at other sites
around California, Nevada, and Arizona, and in total we're well over
1,000 megawatts of new development in our solar pipeline. You could say
we have the solar bug."
Solar is still more expensive than coal or gas, but that doesn't dampen
Sempra's optimism about the solar future. "Solar has no emissions, and
solar costs have dropped tremendously in the last 10 to 20 years," says
Engelbrecht. "Every time we put in one of these facilities,
we learn more, we bring down the cost of the panels, and we bring down
the cost of the infrastructure that supports those panels."
Sempra also sees the nation embracing renewable energy as well.
"California now has a 33 percent renewable standard that needs to be
met by 2020, and Arizona and Nevada and other states in the west also
have renewable standards, so there's a large demand for our product,"
says Engelbrecht. "We know how to build a good product, and we're just
developing sites and effectively meeting consumer demand."
With every facility, Sempra is paving the way to an affordable solar