Tag Archives: Utility-scale Solar Installations

A Huge Solar Plant Caught on Fire, and That’s the Least of Its Problems

By Sarah Zhang, WIRED

Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar plant, is a glittering sea of mirrors, concentrating sunlight into three glowing towers. It is a futuristic vision rising out of the Mojave desert. But from the day the plant opened for business in 2014, critics have said the technology at Ivanpah is outdated and too finicky to maintain.

The latest problem? A fire at one of the plant’s three towers on Thursday, which left metal pipes scorched and melted. As the plant dealt with engineering hiccups, Ivanpah initially struggled to fulfill its electricity contract, and it would have had to shut down if the California Public Utilities Commission didn’t throw it a bone this past March. “Ivanpah has been such a mess,” says Adam Schultz, program manager at the UC Davis Energy Institute and former analyst for the CPUC. “If [the fire] knocks them offline, it’s going to further dig them in.” On top of the technical challenges, the plant has had to deal with PR headaches like reports of scorched birds and blinded pilots from its mirrors.

Ivanpah’s biggest problem, though, is hard economics. When the plant was just a proposal in 2007, the cost of electricity made using Ivanpah’s concentrated solar power was roughly the same as that from photovoltaic solar panels. Since then, the cost of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels has plummeted to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (compared to 15 to 20 cents for concentrated solar power) as materials have gotten cheaper. “You’re not going to see the same thing with concentrated solar power plants because it’s mostly just a big steel and glass project,” says Schultz. It can only get so much cheaper.

Read full article at WIRED

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Utility-Scale Solar Surpasses Wind in California for First Time in 2015

Recent analysis from Vaisala, a global leader in environmental and industrial measurement, reveals that in 2015 energy from grid-connected, utility-scale solar plants surpassed wind for the first time in California. While this is an exciting milestone for the solar industry, the rise of solar also brings with it a demand for better forecasting information to cope with the challenges that the increase in variable generation poses to the regional energy system.

California has been a national leader in renewables since first establishing its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in 2002, and, with a 50% RPS mandate recently signed into law, it is likely to maintain its position for years to come. Today the state is still one of the largest U.S. wind markets in terms of capacity, but the exponential growth of large-scale solar in recent years has considerably altered the structure of the regional energy market.

Public records from CAISO (California Independent System Operator) indicate that over the past five years, grid-connected, utility-scale solar generation in California increased fifteen-fold. It went from a total of 1,000 GWh in 2011 to an impressive 15,592 GWh in 2015, composing 6.7% of the system total and surpassing wind for the first time, which made up 5.3% of the system total.

Read full press release from Vaisala

Yikes! Is California’s interest in Solar Energy Collapsing?

GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released their US Solar Market Insight 2015 Year in Review on Wednesday, March 9. We’ve been tracking their PV capacity reports for the past several years, and in the figure below we plot the 2015 capacity increases reported in their Executive Summary.

While there was strong national growth in installation capacity this past year, California’s capacity additions were less than in 2014. After a couple years of providing over half the annual capacity additions in the country (57% last year), California’s share has fallen to a mere 45%.

 Annual PV Installations: California and U.S. Total (2010-2015)

Annual PV Installations: California & U.S. Total (2010-2015)

We picked ourselves up off the floor and asked “What is happening; is this for real?” So we called GTM Research and checked other sources to find out what in the world was going on. Turns out that despite the disastrous looking change, solar growth in California remains alive and well.
Turns out the primary reason for the downturn is a sharp decline in Utility-scale PV projects. According to GTM, these additions fell to the vicinity of 1800 MW last year. [I wish we could afford the $2000 – $6000 for the full report that our SEIA Membership entitles us to so that we could access all the GTM data. But we live in lean times and use information from diverse public sources such as US Energy Information Agency (EIA) and California Energy Commission (CEC) as well as GTM’s summaries to inform our understanding.]

According to EIA information published in late February, it appears that Utility-scale solar PV expanded by 2000 MW in 2014, but only 1100 MW (preliminary) in 2015. Data from diverse sources rarely match-up year-to-year, but the trends are identical—California’s utility-scale PV installations experienced a sharp reduction in 2015.

After checking the CEC’s most recent Tracking Progress, Renewable Energy-Overview, we can see why—the utility industry is ahead of target for meeting the state’s 2016 Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) 25% goal. The industry achieved almost 25% renewables in 2014! The state added approximately 4000 MW of utility scale PV capacity between 2013 and 2015. Utilities are meeting their target early; the apparent slowdown is a temporary pause while utilities work on the installations that will get the state to 33% renewable electricity by 2020.

Distributed generation activity remains strong in California, both in the Residential and Non-Residential segments. The state’s residential customers generated demand for approximately 1000 MW of installations—almost half the national total of 2100 MW. And other distributed generation customers (eg, commercial rooftops) account for about another 300 MW.

So for the first time in years, California’s share of new solar PV installation is now less than half the national total. Good news! The rest of the country is waking up to the benefits of solar energy with capacity increasing in numerous states. The Utility sector is leading this expansion, while the residential sector growth is accelerating. We’re pleased to see this expansion.

A Sunny Future for Utility-Scale Solar

By John Finnigan, The Energy Collective

Utility-scale solar and distributed solar both have an important role to play in reducing greenhouse emissions, and both have made great strides in the past year.

Utility-scale solar, the focus of this article, is reaching “grid parity” (i.e., cost equivalency) with traditional generation in more areas across the country. And solar received a major boost when the federal tax incentive was recently extended through 2021. The amount of the incentive decreases over time, but the solar industry may be able to offset the lower tax incentive if costs continue to decline. New changes in policy and technology may further boost its prospects.

Some of the world’s largest solar plants came on-line in the U.S. during the past year, such as the 550-megawatt (MW) Topaz Solar plant in San Luis Obispo County, California and the 550MW Desert Sunlight plant in Desert Center, California. Last year saw a record increase in the amount of new utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation installed – about four gigawatts (GW), a whopping 38 percent increase over 2013, and enough solar power to supply electricity to 1.2 million homes. This number is expected to increase in 2015 when the final numbers are in.

Read complete article from The Energy Collective

Why Rooftop Solar Advocates Are Upset About California’s Clean-Energy Law

By Ivan Penn, The Los Angeles Times

California’s aggressive push to increase renewable energy production comes with a catch for people with solar panels on the roof: You don’t count.

If a home or business has a rooftop solar system, most of the wattage isn’t included in the ambitious requirement to generate half of the state’s electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2030, part of legislation signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown.

That means rooftop solar owners are missing out on a potentially lucrative subsidy that is paid to utilities and developers of big power projects. It also means that utility ratepayers could end up overpaying for clean electricity to meet the state’s benchmark because lawmakers, by excluding rooftop solar, left out the source of more than a third of the state’s solar power.

Owners of rooftop solar systems and their advocates aren’t happy about the policy…The rooftop solar industry and consumer advocates say opposition to including rooftop solar in California’s renewable energy mandate came from large developers that feared competition for subsidies as well as unions that were upset because rooftop solar installers typically aren’t members.

Read full article in the Los Angeles Times

Solar Power’s Pathway to Energy Supremacy

By Philip Wolfe, Renewable Energy World

In my previous article, I showed that there are no technological, resource or land area constraints that would prevent solar power from delivering any proportion of the world’s electricity needs, up to and including 100 percent. My follow up article illustrated how its viability is a function of the solar resource, declining capital costs, and their relation to traditional electricity prices. It showed why solar is already the low-cost option in places like Chile, and projected that this so-called ‘grid parity’ will progressively extended to other parts of the world. How fast that happens will depend in part on logistics, but primarily on regulatory issues; so this final article addresses in particular the politics of rolling out utility scale solar generation.

Before developing the key proposition further, let me briefly note how fast the sector is progressing. When the first article was published in April (2015) it showed that installed utility scale solar capacity was equivalent to 0.3 percent of global electricity usage. That figure has climbed to 0.33 percent. More countries are now active in utility-scale solar, with nearly 30 countries boasting a capacity of 100 MW or more.

Read full article from Renewable Energy World

NAS Lemoore could sign contract for mega-solar farm next month

By John Lindt, The Fresno Business Journal

The U.S. Navy has a goal to develop 1 gigawatt (1,000 MW) of renewable energy by 2020, enough power to light up 700,000 homes. Now it looks like Naval Air Station Lemoore could generate nearly 40 percent of that figure on its own.

The Kings County base is set to welcome new F-35 strike fighter jets that will be landing in what will be a sea of perhaps 1 million solar panels planted next to the runway—the largest solar plant at an airport in the world. The Navy is looking to lease out 3,000-5,000 acres of land surrounding the NAS Lemoore installation to a solar development company that would build a 390 MW solar farm, according to a solicitation. By contrast, Nellis Air Force base in Nevada is the largest solar military airport now at 15 MW on 140 acres.

The Navy studied the idea at Lemoore a few years back and more formally started the process in January. Officials decided the environmental impact of the proposed project was negligible, so now they can move forward if ongoing negotiations with a private solar firm go well.  The Navy and a private partner would enter into an agreement to allow the private partner to use Navy land to construct, operate and own the proposed solar photovoltaic system. The partner would sell the generated power to regional customers, and would be responsible for the plant’s maintenance, operation, and eventual decommissioning.

Including the infrastructure, the total construction period for the project would be approximately four years, putting it online in 2020. With more large scale solar coming to Kings County, the addition of nearly 400 megawatts of power would mean the county’s total capacity, either built or permitted, would total nearly 900 megawatts.

Read full article in the Fresno Business Journal

Could Solar Energy Be California’s Next Cash Crop?

By Christina Nunez, National Geographic

Several years ago, Nick Rajkovich bought 1,200 acres in California’s Fresno County, planning to grow almonds for his family’s farming business. The ranch had a steady supply of water at the time. But that changed with the state’s latest, relentless drought: Federal water deliveries over the past three years dwindled to zero. “Now the almonds are dead,” Rajkovich says; and with the land bone dry and no relief in sight, “The only thing we can farm is the sun. That’s why solar is the obvious choice for us.”

Rajkovich is one of many farmers in the Central Valley and elsewhere who are turning land over to solar developers, planting photovoltaic panels instead of crops. California’s punishing drought is sparking fierce debates over water allotments for agriculture, and more than 500,000 acres will lie fallow this year. At the same time, the state is fighting climate change more aggressively than ever with a new law requiring half of all electricity to come from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2030.

All of that clean energy needs real estate, and farmers have land available. Now, almost a third of California’s big solar facilities—those capable of generating one megawatt or more—stand on croplands or pastures, according to new research.

Read full article from National Geographic

Navy Signs Largest-Ever U.S. Solar Deal

By Morgan Lee, The San Diego Union-Tribune

The Navy announced Thursday that it will buy power from a sprawling solar farm in the Arizona desert to help power 14 military installations in California, in the largest renewable energy purchase by the U.S. government to date.

San Diego-based Sempra Energy expects to have the Mesquite 3 solar facility online in 2016. The 150 megawatt solar array is being built at a power complex 60 miles west of Phoenix, and has the capacity to power nearly 100,000 California households at one time by one common measure.

The Western Area Power Administration, which markets and delivers hydroelectric power across 15 states, helped broker the power contract, which will supply a third of the power to 14 Navy and Marine Corps installations, including Naval Base Coronado. Financial terms of the 25-year power purchase agreement were not available.

Read full article in the San Diego Union-Tribune

The lonely energy projects left behind by the clean energy evolution

By Katie Fehrenbacher, Fortune

As clean energy evolves into a major industry, pioneering but no longer competitive energy projects act as a reminder of how fast technology is changing. Ultra low cost solar panels and lithium ion batteries are remaking how homeowners, businesses and utilities use energy. But dramatically cheaper prices for these technologies in recent years also means that other early innovations once seen as the future are now far less competitive. The result: A number of one-of-a-kind experimental energy projects that may be the first and last of their kinds.

Solar thermal technology was one of the biggest and most highly touted industries to be bypassed partly by the cheaper alternative. At the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, companies built a handful of big solar thermal projects in the U.S. Southwest. The most well-known of these is Ivanpah, a Hoover Dam-sized concentrated solar thermal plant built on five acres in the California Mojave Desert outside of Las Vegas. Ivanpah uses 347,000 mirrors and three huge 450-foot towers to produce enough electricity for 140,000 average American homes. It took more than seven years of development, including over three years of construction, and a $1.6 billion U.S. government loan to get built.

Even at Ivanpah’s opening, the uncertain future of solar thermal technology in the U.S. was one of the big topics of the day, and a year and a half later, and with even lower solar panel prices, it’s looking even less promising. The Solar Energy Industry Association recently called the prospects for new U.S. solar thermal plants in 2016 “bleak” considering the higher costs, the long time lines and the impending reduction of an important federal tax credit. Three big solar thermal projects from major developers have been put on hold indefinitely.

Even photovoltaic solar projects that employ traditional silicon solar panels will look quite different a few years from now than they do today. In recent months a series of massive solar panel farms have started production in California; the biggest among them produce 550 megawatts and 579 megawatts, making them the world’s largest. But projects of that size—spurred by California utilities’ attempts to meet a state clean power mandate—will probably be rarer going forward. In the future, utilities will likely propose solar panel plants that produce closer to tens to a 100 megawatts, because they are far easier to get permitted and approved by regulators.

Read full article from Fortune