Tag Archives: Utility-scale Solar

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

California’s Chief Utility Regulator: The Future Grid Is All About ‘Distributed Decision-Making’

By Jeff St. John, Greentech Media

Michael Picker has spent part of his 11 months as president of the California Public Utilities Commission managing the aftermath of the alleged misdeeds of his predecessor. But as he oversees some of the biggest changes to California energy policy in over a decade, he’s also spent a good deal of time explaining his vision for greening the state with distributed energy, along with the distributed decision-making to make it work for the grid.

Since he was appointed in December, Picker has been stressing certain key policy philosophies for how the CPUC can help the state reach its carbon reduction and green energy goals. These include a preference for market-based solutions over technology mandates, a heavy emphasis on electric vehicles as part of the mix, and an enthusiasm for technologies that can manage lots and lots of distributed energy resources (DERs) in concert with the grid as a whole.

In a series of talks this month, Picker declined to discuss details of big proceedings under review, such as the CPUC’s net-metering reform, which has pitted the solar industry against the state’s big three investor-owned utilities. But he did sketch out a plan for managing the inevitable growth of intermittent renewable energy, whether from millions of rooftops or ever-cheaper utility-scale solar and wind projects.

Read full article from Greentech Media

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

California Achieves New Utility-Scale Solar Energy Generation Peak Of 6.391 GW

By James Ayre, CleanTechnica

The state of California has achieved a new electricity generation peak record for utility-scale solar energy, according to recent reports. The new record of 6.391 gigawatts (alternating current, not direct current) was achieved on August 20, 2015, according to California’s grid operator. This figure refers to both utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) projects and concentrating solar power (CSP) projects.

While the 6.391 GW figure includes both utility-scale solar PV and CSP projects, it doesn’t include the output of distributed solar energy system output (so-called “behind-the-meter” electricity generation). GTM Research has previously estimated a figure of 3.2 GW of total distributed solar system capacity in California for Quarter 1, 2015 — so, assuming that’s correct, and that peak generation sometimes approaches peak capacity for distributed, then the total peak figure could actually be as much as 50% higher.

Read full article from CleanTechnica

The Solar Industry Stands Divided Over California’s 50% Renewable Energy Target

By Julia Pyper, Greentech Media

These days, it’s rare to see rooftop solar installers and investor-owned utilities aligned on state policy issues. But in California, the two industry groups are both lobbying for behind-the-meter solar to count toward the state’s expanded renewable portfolio standard.

SB 350, the “Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015,” seeks to increase the state’s renewable energy target from 33 percent by 2020, to 50 percent by 2030. It also calls for cutting petroleum use in the transportation sector by half, and doubling the energy efficiency of buildings over the next 15 years. The bill has already passed the California Senate, and is now making its way through the Assembly.

One of the issues both utilities and solar installers have raised is that distributed solar should not be treated any differently than utility-scale solar as the state crafts the rules around meeting the new 50 percent target. As the RPS stands today, California utilities are only required to buy energy and renewable energy credits (RECs) from utility-scale solar plants. California is the only state in the country that does not count distributed solar toward the state’s RPS goal, either through a distributed generation carve-out or by generating RECs.

In letters to the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce, Southern California Edison and PG&E argue that “state policy should not pick technology winners and losers, favoring only utility-scale renewables,” and call on the legislature to “expand the scope of eligible renewable resources to include distributed generation facilities such as rooftop solar that the state already acknowledges are renewable, yet do not count toward the RPS goal.” This change would give utilities more ways to meet the lofty 50 percent RPS goal. It would also give them a potentially more affordable way to meet the goal by leveraging existing and future private investment toward meeting the RPS, rather than necessarily having to contract for new large-scale projects using ratepayer dollars.

The issue has made strange bedfellows of power companies and rooftop solar installers, which have clashed in several states over the future of net energy metering. Meanwhile, it has pitted rooftop solar companies against large-scale solar installers, which are actively lobbying against the RPS change.

Read full article from Greentech Media

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Inside the nation’s first renewables-plus-storage microgrid

By Robert Walton, Utility Dive

Borrego Springs, California, sits less than 100 miles from San Diego, but in terms of electric reliability the two places were once worlds apart. San Diego Gas & Electric serves 3.4 million consumers with 1.4 million electric meters in its territory. And last year – for the ninth consecutive year – it was named the most reliable Western utility by PA Consulting Group.  But if you lived in Borrego Springs, an isolated desert community surrounded by a state park, your utility experience was markedly different.

“That area has seen outages over the years, some lasting days on end,” according to Jim Avery, SDG&E’s chief development officer. “Borrego Springs is served by one radial transmission line traversing 60 miles of exposure. It is susceptible to wildfires, windstorms, flooding and hail.” After wildfires knocked out power to the area in 2007 for two days, the utility took a hard look at how to better supply residents and businesses. About 2,800 people live in the community, which is entirely surrounded by Anza-Borrego State Park, the largest park in California.

“As a result of the wildfires, we decided we were going to rethink the way we served communities such as Borrego Springs,” Avery said. “We started our quest for designing a fully-integrated microgrid, one that could integrate conventional sources of generation, renewable sources, such as rooftop solar, as well as substation and utility-scale solar.” The system also includes distributed energy storage and batteries located at substations. With the help of $8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, “we’ve gone through an evolution in the last seven years towards building that ultimate microgrid,” Avery said. “And we’ve had some opportunities to test it under different conditions.”

The grid was used to avoid some smaller outages, and then earlier this year the California Energy Commission awarded the utility a $5 million grant to expand, allowing it to interconnect with the nearby 26-MW Borrego Springs solar facility.

In late spring, major flooding did damage to SDG&E’s transmission corridor – potentially leaving customers in the dark again. Historically, that would have meant a 10-hour outage as the utility rebuilt the poles. “We would have had customers out of service for almost an entire day,” Avery said. “But because the microgrid was up and running we were able to switch over all of our customers to be fed by the rooftop solar systems scattered out in the community, in addition the large-scale solar, and it was all balanced by the batteries located on the distribution line and at our substations.” Borrego Springs’ peak load is about 14 MW, and rooftop plus utility-scale solar give the community about 30 MW of generation. The batteries can store about 1.5 MW.

Borrego Springs isn’t the only microgrid out there, of course. It’s not even the only one operated by SDG&E, which has a few other grids in place for voltage regulation. But, according to Avery, it is the first of its kind to power an entire community with renewable energy.

Read full article from Utility Dive

A BRIGHT QUARTER FOR SOLAR CALIFORNIA

In June, GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released their US Solar Market Insight report for the first quarter of 2015. Their report and others from a variety of state and federal sources indicate the solar industry in California continues its impressive growth. The state remains above the national average in the rate of growth in residential and commercial solar capacity, and continues to contribute well over half the national utility capacity added. The US Energy Information Agency reports that last year California became the first state to obtain more than 5% of its electricity production from utility-scale solar power. While the glass appears more than half full, we must not become complacent as there are a number of long-term issues — warning clouds on the horizon — that we must face and resolve.

First quarter residential additions reportedly totaled 231 MW; that is enough to power an additional 60,000 homes with solar energy. This added capacity is 78% larger than the capacity added during the same time last year — a year-over-year growth not even dreamed of in most industries. And for the naysayers who claim this is all subsidized, the California Solar Initiative program has pretty much run its course so that over 80% of these installations occurred without need of state support.

Commercial or non-residential on-site (commonly rooftop) systems have experienced marked growth also, though at more modest volumes. The GTM Research/SEIA study identifies 88 MW added in the first quarter—small compared to residential activity, but still a healthy 42% increase over the 62 MW added in the first quarter of 2014. As with residential systems, these too are increasingly being installed on their economic merits without state subsidies.

Taken together, these 3-month additions bring the total residential and commercial capacity to over 3000 MW of Photovoltaics. When operating in full sun, these systems generate more kilowatt hours of electricity than the 2200 MW capacity of the state’s remaining nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon:  more than a nuclear power plant’s energy production on our rooftops with far less risk or controversy.

And speaking of power plants, utility scale PV is the third category of solar production. The 399 MW reportedly added was less than was added during the same quarter last year, but these numbers tend to be lumpy. Utility-scale additions often are tallied in chunks of various sizes, like the 550 MW Topaz and Desert Sun projects that were phased in during 2014. With 5400 MW installed at the end of 2014, and over 4500 MW planned for installation during the next few years, quarterly comparisons are less significant.

So in summary, past quarter growth has been strong and the market outlook is bright. Governor Brown announced in January (and the Assembly is considering) the goal to obtain half the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The 2016 goal of 25% has already been achieved; the 2020 goal of 33% appears achievable, maybe even sooner. These policies should serve to maintain efforts to expand renewable energy production.

Potential market expansion programs are imminent. The Green Tariff Shared Renewables program should expand the PV market to include renters and single family homeowners whose homes don’t lend themselves to on-site generation (due to structural, shading and other site-specific constraints). The state’s three large investor-owned utilities will be rolling out programs to provide renewably-sourced electricity to customers later this year. In parallel with this, cities and counties are assessing the benefits to residents of Community Choice Aggregation programs where-by they can source the electricity for resale to their residents. If priced and operated in a manner appealing to the untapped market, these programs could expand the potential number of households that source their electricity from solar sources by at least fourfold.

But there are competing perspectives to be balanced as the state moves forward, and not all focus on the same single issue of carbon reduction. The question of rate-payer equity and possible subsidization of PV owners by other utility customers needs to be addressed. This struggle to identify an equitable means of Net Energy Metering is not unique to California, but it is critical for its potential to up-end the economic attractiveness of residential and commercial scale PV systems. Its importance to the continued expansion of solar energy use in California is emphasized by Bernadette Del Chiaro’s guest commentary elsewhere on this website.

And at the federal level, the reduction (commercial) or expiration (residential) of the 30% investment tax credit has the potential to depress demand not just in California but nationwide. Falling prices of PV systems may soften this effect, but its loss could still be damaging to both the industry and our climate.

Industry reports this past quarter were widely favorable, and the solar industry in California appears to be under the influence of the Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you

May the wind always be at your back,

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and rains fall soft upon your fields.

Though we are falling short of the soft rains! We need to deal quickly and effectively with the warning clouds on the horizon — lest the resulting rain be not as soft as either the traveler or we Californian’s desire.

Solar Star, Largest PV Power Plant in the World, Now Operational

By Eric Wesoff, Greentech Media

BHE Renewables’ 579 MW Solar Star project in Antelope Valley, Calif. went fully on-line on June 19th, allowing it to claim the title of the largest operational solar project on the planet. All three of the world’s largest photovoltaic solar plants are now located in California—Solar Star narrowly edges out the 550 MW Topaz Solar project in San Luis Obispo County and the 550 MW and the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project in Riverside for the title.

Construction started in January 2013 on the two Solar Star plants, which are sited in California’s Los Angeles and Kern counties and span more than 3,200 acres. The projects employ approximately 1.7 million SunPower monocrystalline silicon modules on single-axis trackers.

Although we may not see too many more solar projects of this size, the utility-scale solar business is alive and well. The utility segment installed 644 MW in Q1 2015, and there are 25 projects developers with pipelines of 100 MW or more, according to GTM Research’s U.S. Solar Market Insight report. GTM Research expects a flurry of activity in the utility segment over the next 18 months ahead of the scheduled decline of the federal Investment Tax Credit.

Read full article from Greentech Media