Solar Energy

Published on May 1st, 2014 | by Tina Casey


290-MW Solar Project Says Get Over It: The Age Of Solar Is Here

May 1st, 2014 by  

Get over it: We’re thinking that’s what the 290-megawatt Agua Caliente solar plant would say to the solar power naysayers, if it could talk. The gigantic solar array, which sits on 2,400 acres of land in Arizona, has achieved “substantial completion” and is cranking up to speed according to the Energy Department.  When at peak capacity it will crank out enough electricity for 230,000 homes.

As the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant (for now, anyways), Agua Caliente plants another US solar industry on the world map, and that is a big deal because, after establishing its tech cred back in the space race days, until recently the domestic solar industry failed to compete in the global market.

First Solar Agua Caliente, Yuma, AZ

Agua Caliente (cropped) courtesy of First Solar.

The Loan Office Program And Agua Caliente

The US solar industry would still be floundering around in the doldrums if it wasn’t for the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office.

Dating back to the Bush Administration, LPO was created to accelerate innovation in the US energy sector, by providing loan guarantees to cutting edge technologies that are a bit too cutting edge to attract private investors.

From its inception, the program necessarily accounted for a certain amount of risk and it has stayed well within that platform, despite some failures such as the Solyndra bankruptcy. Certain members of Congress (you know who you are) tried to use that episode as an excuse to torpedo LPO and make political hay in the 2012 presidential election cycle, even though the company was in the loan approval pipeline during the Bush Administration for two years before President Obama first took office in 2008.

But, we digress. LPO, survived, President Obama was re-elected, and Agua Caliente blows a giant raspberry in the direction of the whole spooky Solyndra thing (anyways, the usual suspects have moved on to spooky Benghazi, spooky IRS, and spooky Affordable Care Act).

We Built This Tidal Wave Of Utility Scale Solar Power Plants!

Agua Caliente received a $967 million Energy Department loan guarantee, which is actually small potatoes compared to the $1.6 billion it dished out to the new Ivanpah concentrating solar power plant (also the largest of its kind in the world), along with $1.4 billion for the new Solana power plant in Arizona (world’s largest solar array – thermal storage combo), and $852 million for the new 250 MW Genesis concentrating solar power plant in California.

The private sector forces behind Agua Caliente are no small potatoes either, yet another demonstration that the US solar market has grown up. The developers are NRG Energy’s NRG Solar division in partnership with the MidAmerican Solar unit of MidAmerican Renewables (yes, that MidAmerican). First Solar designed and constructed the plant, and will operate and maintain it.



To give you an idea where we were back when President Obama first took office, according to the Energy Department the largest photovoltaic array in the US topped out at 14 MW, at Nellis Air Force Base, and nobody had built a concentrating solar power plant in the US in 20 years.

As planned, as the US solar industry matures it is beginning to attract more private investment. After LPO funded five utility scale projects another 10 projects that crash the 100 MW barrier were announced, all without help from the Energy Department.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • micheal

    We’ve seen a growing number of large solar power projects. The solar
    power came from a 10-megawatt project built by Sempra Generation that used First Solar’s panels.See More

  • injulen

    I don’t understand how it can power 230,000 homes. A quick bit of math gets me closer to a figure of 10,000 and thats if it runs at peak output all the time.

    1 MW = 1000 KW.

    Average US home = 30 KWh a day.

    290 MW = 290,000 KW

    290,000 / 30 = 9666.66~

  • Green Globe

    The author should add to her profile after the story: Democrat hack, Republican hater, Liberal sheep, Obama apologist. Now that’s really “spooky.”

  • agnomie

    How exciting! I wish I could be alive to see the whole world powered sustainably, people enjoying the clear clean air, children knowing no other way; the world awash with scientific and technological potential, and populations lifted out of poverty and stultifying conditions.

  • Calamity_Jean

    This sort of thing could make a person glad to be in hot water! (Agua Caliente means “Hot Water” in Spanish.)

    Agua Caliente got a federal loan guarantee in August 2011 and was already putting out power in December the same year. Building it went so fast that they had to stop for a while because it was ahead of schedule. From :

    First Solar Inc. (FSLR), the biggest U.S. solar manufacturer, halted panel deliveries to the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant, which it’s building in Arizona, because construction is ahead of schedule and the company must slow down to meet contractual milestones.

    First Solar won’t ship additional modules until January to the $1.8 billion Agua Caliente project and won’t install panels currently sitting on the ground at the site, said Fred Pech, the power plant’s construction manager. The solar farm is scheduled for completion at the end of 2013 and is 85 percent built.

    Maybe they should have made a shorter schedule. But Agua Caliente when it was started was the world’s largest PV solar farm, so it was only prudent to put a little slack into the plan.

    Now compare that to Watts Bar Unit 2, currently under construction. From :

    TVA is currently working to finish the partially completed Unit 2. Unit 2 was about 80% complete when its construction was stopped in 1988. The official reason given for halting construction was a decrease in demand for electricity. Unit 2 remains partly completed (several of its parts being used on other TVA units), but on August 1, 2007 the TVA Board approved completion of the unit. Construction resumed on October 15, 2007, with the reactor expected to begin operation in 2015. The project was expected to cost $2.5 billion, and employ around 2,300 contractor workers. Once finished, it is estimated to produce 1,180 megawatts and create around 250 permanent jobs. Unit 2 is expected to be the first new nuclear reactor to come online in the USA in nearly two decades.

    In February 2012, TVA said the Watts Bar 2 project was running over budget and behind schedule. On April 5, 2012, TVA released a revised construction schedule and cost estimate for the Unit 2 project, stating that the new target start date for Unit 2 would be by December 2015. As of December 2012, the plant’s cost estimate was US$4–4.5 billion.

    Solar farm: construction time under 3 years including a delay because of being ahead of schedule, power production starting during construction, building cost under $2 billion. Last 15% of construction = about 1 year

    Nuclear plant: construction time for only last 20% = 8 years or more, no power produced yet, cost over $4 billion.

    In the time needed to construct one nuke plant, half a dozen or more solar or wind farms could be built. Long before a nuclear operator sees watt #1 or a dollar of return on investment, an operator of a wind farm or solar farm will have put out multiple gigawatts and taken in considerable profit.

    • LookingForward

      First off, let me say I’m not a fan of nuclear, atleast not of the current version that’s being used (generation 4 looks great in theory).
      That being said, I think nuclear will be the “bridge fuel” of the future and will also help alot as a base load (the onces that aren’t closed down yet) and will help covering the times of low wind and solar.
      Also once Watts Bar Unit 2 is finished, it will catch up really fast since it will produce electricity at 95% of max (or something) 24/7.

      • Bob_Wallace

        What small information I’ve seen is that it takes a while to ‘dial in’ a new reactor so that it runs about 90% of the time. Don’t expect that much out of Watts Bar for the first couple years.

        There’s a lot of talk about the high CF for reactors. Take a look at what actually happens.

  • Eric Gold

    I think my earlier post went up in to ether, so a repeat:

    626.219 GWh per year annual production for 30 years that cost 1.8 B USD
    = 9.6 cents a kWh cost of production


    • Bob_Wallace

      Disqus seems to be experiencing a bout of slippery fingers.

  • JamesWimberley

    Tina “.. until recently the domestic solar industry failed to compete in the global market”. Solar utility plants don’t and can’t compete in the global market. Some large developers do and have done for years; the few surviving US panel makers – basically First Solar and SunPower; and producers of inverters and production equipment.
    Or do you mean compete as in a horse race or beauty contest?

  • Ed Jacobsen

    Project: Agua Caliente Solar Project

    Area: 9.712… km^2

    Cost: $1.8 billion

    Annual generation: 2.254… x 10^15 J

    Peak power: 290 MW

    Average power: 71.486… MW


    • Jim

      On-peak power generation (displacing the highest heat-rate, least efficient conventional generation): 290MW.

      Peak daytime electricity demand is 3x higher than nighttime.

      This is an outstanding investment that will deliver zero-fuel, low-opex, zero-emissions, high-value energy for decades and decades.

      So what’s your point?

      • MarkRavingMad

        Nominally On-Peak is not the same as On-peak, but it’s close, but to guarantee peaking functionality you need storage. That’s why I still like CSP with molten salt storage for utility scale projects: The thermal storage lets you offset forecastable, but not 100% dependable sunlight into extremely high-value dispatchable peaking power.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Watching what is happening with vanadium flow and liquid metal batteries, I’m not sure the future looks bright for thermal solar with storage. Thermal storage can only cycle once per 24 hour period. Batteries can cycle twice – wind/solar.

      • MarkRavingMad

        Also, variance between peak and valley loads averages out to about 32%, not 300% as you’ve indicated, but that’s actually good news.

    • sault

      You have to add in the avoided cost of pollution and climate change along with the benefit of absolute “fuel” price certainty that solar provides to get an accurate picture.

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