Rosemead, California [RenewableEnergyAccess.com] For the past few weeks, solar industry insiders have been whispering of a massive multi-MW solar thermal power project slated for the desert Southwest that would be the first commercial application of dish-style solar thermal stirling energy units from Stirling Energy Systems (SES). It’s a secret no more.If all goes according to plan, a partnership between SES and Southern California Edison (SCE), would see the construction of an expansive 4,500-acre solar generating station in Southern California. When completed, the proposed power station would be the world’s largest solar facility, capable of producing more electricity than all other U.S. solar projects combined. The 20-year power purchase agreement signed today, which is subject to California Public Utilities Commission approval, calls for development of a 500-MW solar project 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles using innovative Stirling dish technology. The agreement includes an option to expand the project to 850 MW. Initially, Stirling would build a one-MW test facility using 40 of the company’s 37-foot-diameter dish assemblies. Subsequently, a 20,000-dish array would be constructed near Victorville, Calif., during a four-year period. “At a time of rising fossil-fuel costs and increased concern about greenhouse-gas emissions, the Stirling project would provide enough clean power to serve 278,000 homes for an entire year,” said SCE Chairman John Bryson. “Edison is committed to facilitating development of new, environmentally sensitive, renewable energy technologies to meet the growing demand for electricity here and throughout the U.S.” Although Stirling dish technology has been successfully tested for 20 years, the SCE-Stirling project represents its first major application in the commercial electricity generation field. Experimental models of the Stirling dish technology have undergone more than 26,000 hours of successful solar operation. A six-dish model Stirling power project is currently operating at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We are especially pleased about the financial benefits of this agreement for our customers and the state,” said Alan Fohrer, SCE chief executive officer. “The contract requires no state subsidy and provides favorable pricing for ratepayers because tests have shown the Stirling dish technology can produce electricity at significantly lower costs than other solar technologies.” The Stirling dish technology converts thermal energy to electricity by using a mirror array to focus the sun’s rays on the receiver end of a Stirling engine. The internal side of the receiver then heats hydrogen gas which expands. The pressure created by the expanding gas drives a piston, crank shaft, and drive shaft assembly much like those found in internal combustion engines but without igniting the gas. The drive shaft turns a small electricity generator. The entire energy conversion process takes place within a canister the size of an oil barrel. The process requires no water and the engine is emission-free. Tests conducted by SCE and the Sandia National Laboratories have shown that the Stirling dish technology is almost twice as efficient as other solar technologies. These include parabolic troughs which use the sun’s heat to create steam that drives turbines similar to those found in conventional power plants, and photovoltaic cells that rely on an expensive and increasingly limited raw material stock.