Chevron-Concentrix Project Shows Why Big Oil and Solar Need Each Other

Chevron's (CVX) plan to build a one-megawatt concentrating solar photovoltaic project in New Mexico is another example of how big oil -- and its cash, distribution networks and global reach -- has paradoxically emerged as an important lifeline for emerging renewable technologies.

Granted, Big Oil's renewable energy investments are tiny compared to what it spends producing fossil fuels. But that will change as government policies now on the horizon force oil companies to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Which is why this latest project is so interesting and important for both Chevron and Concentrix Solar, whose CPV solar system will be used in the facility. At a passing glance, the project is an opportunity to test concentrating photovoltaic solar technology, which uses lenses or mirrors to focus sunlight onto high-efficiency solar cells. CPV technology is considered more efficient than traditional solar panels and holds promise for the industry, but the market has been slow to grow, as Greentech Media notes.

The location of the project is another experiment, one that could help oil companies find ways to reduce their carbon footprint. The solar plant will be built on the tailing site at Chevron Mining's molybdenum mine in Questa, New Mexico. The project will be implemented in conjunction with an evaluation of various soil depths for closure of the tailing facility at the end of mining operations, according to Chevron. In short, contaminated land will be used for a renewable energy project.

Imagine for a minute, if at every mine or drilling site, there was a renewable energy component waiting in the wings to use the impacted lands once operations ended. Or if renewable energy was used to offset the use of fossil fuels while mining or drilling sites were still operating.

Turning mining operations into renewable energy hubs could also save jobs if companies found an effective way to retrain employees. Considering the Questa mine cut 50 percent of its staff last year, which Earth2tech also noted, this would be an important development for the area.

This isn't the first time Chevron has invested in solar. The company has created a subsidiary, Chevron Energy Solutions, simply to build and finance dozens of solar installation projects across the United States. And its venture capital arm has invested in solar firm BrightSource Energy. But Chevron's plans to build the 1 MW CPV plant in New Mexico is different from its other solar ventures. For one, this is the first using CPV technology. Its investment in this latest project puts much needed dollars into a technology that could make solar more efficient and cheaper. And its willingness to build what will be the largest CPV solar installation in the U.S. gives the emerging technology a boost and a bit of renewable energy street cred, at least among the big oil crowd.

Chevron will begin construction on this project in spring 2010 and expects it to be completed by the end of the year. The facility will include approximately 175 solar panels on about 20 acres of land, and the electricity produced will be sold to Kit Carson Electric Cooperative through a power purchase agreement.

Photo of concentrating photovoltaic system by National Renewable Energy Lab