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The Associated Press April 19, 2011, 5:03PM ET

Chevron builds solar plant at NM tailings site

A subsidiary of oil giant Chevron Corp. and a sister company announced Tuesday they have completed one of the largest concentrating photovoltaic solar power plants in the nation at a tailings site in northern New Mexico.

Chevron Mining Inc. and Chevron Technology Ventures built the 1-megawatt demonstration plant on 20 acres of the mining company's molybdenum operation near the village of Questa.

Village and company officials gathered Tuesday at the site to celebrate the completion of the project, which Chevron will use to evaluate the emerging technology as well as the feasibility of using impacted land for renewable energy development.

"We've been in the energy business a long time and we appreciate that it takes a long time to bring new technology to market, but if we don't start now, we'll never get there, and this is a great way of doing it," Des King, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the site.

The idea of using brownfields, or other contaminated sites, for renewable energy development has become more popular. Analysts with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado have been working with the Environmental Protection Agency to review possible sites across the country.

The Interior Department also has been pushing to streamline development of solar projects on public land from New Mexico to Nevada, where the sun shines about 300 days out of the year.

The Questa array marks Chevron's third brownfield project, King said. The company turned an old refinery site in Casper, Wyo., into a wind farm and used another refinery near Bakersfield, Calif., to build an experimental solar farm.

The company is combing through a list of all of its sites around the world to see which might lend themselves to more renewable and energy efficiency projects, he said.

The Southwest is ideal for concentrating photovoltaics because of the region's higher level of direct solar radiation, said Ryne Raffaelle, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL.

Unlike traditional flat solar panels, this technology uses lenses that act like magnifying glasses to collect and focus the sun's rays onto layers of solar cells.

"The tremendous improvement that we have seen in the solar conversion efficiencies for the solar cells used in the systems is quite simply remarkable," Raffaelle said. "They are now 25 percent more efficient than they were just a decade ago."

Chevron has installed 173 solar trackers at the Questa site that are capable of generating enough electricity to power about 300 New Mexico homes. The electricity is being sold to a local electric cooperative.

The trackers, spanning 18 feet by 21 feet, are operated by a control room filled with computer servers.

"They are active all day. As the sun moves, they move," King said, speaking over the whirring sound of the servers.

Chevron will be monitoring the reliability of the solar panels as well as their performance over the next five years.

Jerry Lomax, Chevron Technology Ventures' vice president of emerging energy, said federal and state efforts aimed at converting brownfields to renewable energy developments makes sense because infrastructure is often already in place and permitting can be expedited.

Lomax and King said building a solar array at the tailings site fits with the company's overall strategy of investing in renewable energy technologies that can help it operate with more energy and cost efficiency.

"We expect in the future, as concentrating photovoltaics get up to scale and as the efficiency of the trackers and panels improve, it has the potential to be a big part of the energy mix without subsidies," Lomax said.

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