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April 20, 2014

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Sempra plans big expansion of Boulder City solar plant

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Tiffany Brown

Sempra Energy’s El Dorado Energy Solar facility is shown outside Boulder City in 2009.

California-based Sempra Generation plans to expand its solar photovoltaic power plant in Boulder City by a massive 48 megawatts.

The company already has a 10-megawatt thin film installation adjacent to its existing natural gas-fired El Dorado Energy power plant. That plant, El Dorado Solar, was completed in late 2008.

The combined solar plants would create the largest photovoltaic array on the continent, generating a total of 58 megawatts from nearly 1 million thin film solar panels. The Nellis Air Force Base photovoltaic array, by comparison, is only 14 megawatts.

“We look forward to continuing our efforts to help Western utilities meet their goals for renewable energy,” Michael W. Allman, Sempra president and CEO, said in a statement.

The company has not yet signed a power purchase agreement with any utility for the electricity, but has been in talks with utilities in California, Arizona and Nevada.

Sempra won’t begin construction on the new plant until a deal is struck.

“It’s just a prudent way of doing business,” Sempra spokesman Art Larson said. “We don’t subscribe to the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy on a project of this size.”

The company built the previous 10 megawatts at the site before securing a power purchase agreement, but Larson said that its smaller size made it is palatable to a wider range of utilities. A project of this size, expected to cost millions of dollars, can’t go forward without solid contracts and financing in place, he said.

The company expects to have those agreements in time to complete the new section, called Copper Mountain Solar, by late 2010.

Like the smaller array, the Copper Mountain array will be manufactured and built by Arizona-based First Solar using a combination of in-state and regional workers.

About 65 percent of the approximately 100 construction workers for the first 10 megawatts were Nevadans. All of the electrical workers on that project were from local unions, Larson said.

The expansion could employ as many as 200 people during the construction phase, and Nevada workers are expected to make up a large portion of that workforce.

“We’re going to hire local as much as we can,” Larson said. “We typically do that with all of our projects.”

The array will employ about three people full time once it is operational.

This is just the start of Sempra’s solar ambitions. The company has set a goal of developing 500 megawatts of solar photovoltaic power in the United States. The expansion in Boulder City was made easier by the location of the company’s existing natural gas plant, in Eldorado Valley along U.S. 95.

The area is ideally suited for solar development with flat, sunny landscape and minimal development. It is also zoned for solar by the city.

“That’s an extremely good location,” Larson said. “It has sunshine most of the year, but also the transmission lines nearby and enough land to install this.”

The company is considering developing similar solar projects near its natural gas-fired power plants in other areas.

Sempra has a large swath of land adjacent to an existing power plant west of Phoenix that could also host a solar array large enough to generate hundreds of megawatts, Larson said.

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