Image: Solar thermal power plant
This solar thermal power plant in Bakersfield, Calif., uses mirrors along the ground to direct sunlight onto horizontal columns. Those then heat up water, producing steam that is used to power an electricity generator.
updated 10/23/2008 5:22:59 PM ET 2008-10-23T21:22:59

Calling it a sign of things to come, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday helped unveil a demonstration facility that concentrates the sun's rays via mirrors to produce electricity.

"This next generation solar power plant is further evidence that reliable, renewable and pollution-free technology is here to stay," Schwarzenegger stated. "Not only will this large-scale solar facility generate power to help us meet our renewable energy goals, it will also generate new jobs as California continues to pioneer the clean-tech industry."

The technology being touted Thursday is called solar thermal power, and the facility in Bakersfield was built in just seven months by Ausra, a company based in Palo Alto, Calif. Ausra builds its 1,000-foot-long mirrors at a factory in Las Vegas.

Solar thermal power uses large fields of mirrors to concentrate and capture the sun's heat. Ausra says it's slashed the technology's costs by simplifying the system by which heat is focused on tubes of water to create steam that drives large power turbines for electricity. The process also creates high-temperature, "process" steam for industrial applications.

The Bakersfield site should be able to generate 5 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 3,500 homes.

But that's just a precursor to Ausra's bigger plant envisioned for San Luis Obispo, Calif. The 177 megawatt facility has already contracted with Pacific Gas and Electric to sell its electricity to power more than 120,000 homes when it comes online in 2010.

Schwarzenegger has set a goal of increasing California's renewable energy sources to 20 percent by 2010.

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