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Next-generation solar project proposed in eastern Kern

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A Pasadena-based solar energy company backed by Bill Gates plans to build a next-generation power project in Kern County that would use mirrors to concentrate sunlight, creating extreme heat for processes normal photovoltaic panels can't deliver. The company, called Heliogen, has a demonstration project in the Antelope Valley.

Early-stage engineering work has begun on a next-generation solar thermal energy project in eastern Kern that would partially replace natural gas and reduce emissions at an existing mining operation, possibly pointing to greater use of renewable power in industrial processes.

Pasadena-based Heliogen Inc.'s proposed installation at the Rio Tinto mine in Boron would use computer-controlled mirrors to concentrate sunlight on the top of a tower to make steam. Energy would also be stored on site as heat to help power the mining operation through the night.

Similar to a demonstration project Pasadena-based Heliogen built in the Antelope Valley, the investment would become the first of its kind to fuel a U.S. mining operation. It reflects and would potentially expand the county's statewide leadership in the production and storage of renewable energy.

Heliogen's project will soon to undergo a review by Kern government. The company noted in a statement Tuesday that the county leads the state in renewable-energy production and is among the nation’s leading counties for development of new energy technology.

"The county not only has excellent year-round solar irradiance, making for highly efficient solar projects, but additionally, the county commissioners are also supportive of energy development and have been excellent to work with," the statement said.

Rio Tinto's borates and lithium carbonate operation in eastern Kern is the first commercial customer of Heliogen, a publicly traded company with backers including philanthropist Bill Gates.

The London-based mining giant estimates the Boron project will produce up to 35,000 pounds of steam per hour, cutting the facility's carbon emissions by about 7 percent, the equivalent of taking more than 5,000 cars off the road.

If things work out, the installation may be expanded to replace even more natural gas use at the plant, which could reduce its carbon footprint by up to 24 percent, Rio Tinto said in a March 2021 news release. It mentioned the possibility of later adapting the technology at its other mines around the world.

Kern, besides producing petroleum, wind energy and various renewable fuels, is a major source of solar energy. But unlike Heliogen's project at Boron, the county's sprawling solar farms and battery installations produce and store electrons, not heat.

Lorelei Oviatt, Kern's top planner and energy permitting specialist, whose staff will conduct the Heliogen project's environmental review, noted Friday that solar thermal plants like the one proposed in Boron may have the potential to serve industrial processes beyond the capacity of photovoltaic solar arrays.

Three weeks ago, Heliogen announced an agreement to collaborate with Los Angeles-based CarbonCapture Inc. on the high-energy process of removing carbon directly from the atmosphere and burying it deep underground. Proposals aimed at similar ends, but without solar thermal energy, have been proposed in Kern.

Heliogen's project with Rio Tinto is planned to begin operation later this year.