The largest High Concentration Photovoltaic (HCPV) project in the world is being funded by the DOE with a $90 million loan guarantee for the Cogentrix Alamosa Solar Generating Project. The first 20 years of the electricity it will generate has already been bought under a PPA (power purchase agreement) by the Public Service Company of Colorado. More than 80 percent of its components will be sourced from the United States.
HCPV is new form of utility-scale solar that has barely been developed, but it has great potential because it has almost twice the efficiency of regular solar PV. Cogentrix HCPV is rated at 40% efficient. By comparison, most coal plants are typically rated at 30% efficiency.
The $90 million in funding represents the tail end of almost $40 billion in loan guarantees, loans, or conditional guarantees by the US Department of Energy (DOE) powered by the Obama administration stimulus Recovery Act.
One famously went bad, $0.5 billion to Solyndra. But the more than 40 DOE loan guarantees have powered up more than 40 utility-scale clean energy projects across the US, including several of the world’s largest solar farms, three geothermal projects, the world’s largest wind farm, and the nation’s first new nuclear power plant in three decades.
US renewable energy on the grid is being doubled to 16 GW as a result, because the DOE loan guarantees have generated the security needed for over $150 billion in private investment funding in US clean energy after the 2008 economic blowout.
At just 30 MW, the Cogentrix project is dwarfed by the more than 24,000 MW of 250 MW to 1,000 MW solar farms now being approved in California, largely due to earlier loan guarantees from the DOE.
Most utility-scale solar is not PV, but CSP (Concentrated Solar Power) which requires water. CSP basically concentrates sun light onto mirrors to make steam, which runs turbines the old fashioned way like gas or coal plants – without sacrificing a livable climate for energy production by burning a fossil fuel.
HCPV will not require water, unlike CSP, because it makes electricity directly in photovoltaic cells, just like regular PV. But this form (HC stands for highly concentrated) of PV so highly concentrates the suns light onto the cells that it is almost twice as efficient at 40%.
What an efficiency rating in solar means is that it just takes less space to make the same power. This means a utility-scale HCPV solar farm that is twice as efficient would take up half the space of a regular solar PV solar farm.
This extremely high efficiency is why it makes sense for the DOE to invest in this first project which will provide electricity to about 6,500 homes and cut the emissions of over 43,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.
Further developments in HCPV could lead to a very clean form of energy production which does not use much space. PV solar is preferable to the various forms of solar thermal in a water constrained future, because it does need water.
The 24,000 MW of utility-scale CSP power plants in California was thanks largely to early seed money and loan guarantees like this one from the DOE. The same early seed money is now jumpstarting an even more efficient form of PV.
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