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U.S. OKs Biggest Solar Plant of Its Kind, Tortoises Deemed Safe

Environmental groups and clean energy companies in California -- two entities that on the surface seem to be the butter to the other's toast -- don't always agree on everything.

As clean energy developers aim to construct on California's vast stretches of arid land solar energy plants the size of small villages, environmentalists have fought to protect two endangered species in the California: the desert tortoise and Mojave fringe-toed lizard.

On Monday, both sides got their wish. Solar Millennium LLC in Oakland, California -- which will partner with Ferrostaal AG to build the largest solar thermal plant in the world -- has agreed to fund a conservation project to provide refuge to the two animals during the plant's construction.

And with that agreement in place, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday approved construction of the $6-billion Blythe Solar Power Project. To be sited 216 miles east of Los Angeles, the project is the sixth solar energy installation approved to be built on public lands. For its conservation efforts, Solar Millennium has gained the backing of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The Blythe solar power project will span over 7,000 acres and have a generating capacity of 1,000 megawatts (MW). In the future, additional capacity may bring that figure to 2,800 MW. Solar thermal plants differ from photovoltaic (PV) plants in that they use mirrors to concentrate the sun's energy. The configuration at Blythe will focus the sun's rays onto tubes that will carry heat into a boiler and eventually pass steam into a turbine. Photovoltaic (PV) plants, by contrast, use panels -- or "modules" -- that convert sunlight directly into electricity.

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