Clean Power

Published on February 10th, 2015 | by James Ayre


550 MW Desert Sunlight Solar Farm In California Now Online

February 10th, 2015 by  

What is now one of the largest solar energy projects in the world was just recently brought online in Desert Center, Riverside County, California — in a ceremony that brought out the US Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, and 150 other government and industry figures.

The 550 megawatts (MW) Desert Sunlight Solar Farm — as it’s known — is situated on a ~3,600-acre tract of land in Riverside County, California, that’s managed by the US Bureau of Land Management. The project was permitted, constructed, and is now being operated by First Solar — the same company that supplied the more than 8 million solar modules that the project is made up of.


Power is now being provided by the project to Pacific Gas & Electric Company and to Southern California Edison — both via long-term power supply contracts.

Secretary Jewell commented on the commissioning thusly: “Solar projects like Desert Sunlight are helping create American jobs, develop domestic renewable energy and cut carbon pollution. I applaud the project proponents for their vision and entrepreneurial spirit to build this solar project, and commend Governor Brown for implementing policies that take action on climate change and help move our nation toward a renewable energy future.”

Armando Pimentel, the president and chief executive officer of NextEra Energy Resources (one of the owners of the project, along with GE Energy Financial Services and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas), commented as well: “We wouldn’t be here today without the hard work and cooperation of all our partners. We are proud that Desert Sunlight will help California meet its renewable energy goals and has helped bring much-needed jobs and economic benefits to families and businesses throughout Riverside County.”

The project will reportedly generate enough power to cover the electricity needs of around 160,000 California homes; and to displace roughly 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Most of the solar panels in the world are crystalline solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. First Solar, however, produces cadmium-telluride (CdTe) thin-film solar panels. It is consistently one of the top 10 solar module manufacturers globally, and the only one that is in this other category. If you’re a regular reader, you probably know all about First Solar, but if not, here’s a video that captures some if its key competitive advantages:

Image Credit: Desert Sunlight Solar Farm

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Dr Glickman

    What we have here is already an obsolete dinosaur. We 1 GWh production per year for 8oooooo panels. That’s a totally disappointing 125 KWh per panel per year. A panel returns $25 per year in energy. And what did we say each panel costs? This is the latest technology? Toxic metals leeching into the sensitive habitat. Any 3rd grader can see this is a disaster.

  • That’s 10 square miles per gigawatt. A fully developed world will need about 25 TW. A quarter of a million square miles. Hopefully, the efficiency will double. We’ll still need more land to account for storage and its inefficiency. Hmmm. Guess that’s ok as long as the EROEI OF TOTAL SYSTEM INCLUDING STORAGE is positive enough to make themselves, sequester excess CO2 and power the future spacefaring world. Other than wind, there are no other sources capable of backing solar (except fission) because biofuels require about 100 square miles per GW (or more!).
    I hope solar and wind works without creating too much of a heat island and without displacing too many animals.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Why are you concerned about EROEI? We’re not going to build our future grid using fossil fuels, but more and more we will use wind and solar power. There’s no danger of using up all the sunshine and wind. EROEI concerns are for finite and limited energy sources such as oil.

      As far as land, here are some numbers I worked out a while back. Assuming we generated 100% of US electricity with solar –

      2013 Total US Demand = 4,045,855 million kWh
      Average Daily Demand = 11,084,534,247 kwh
      Add 20% for Storage and Transmission Loss = 13,301,441,096 kWh
      Total Number 1 kW Panels (64 sq.ft. each) = 2,955,875,799 (Assuming 4.5 avg solar hours per day)
      Total Area for Panels = 189,176,051,142 Sq. Ft.
      Total Area for Panels = 4,342,884.5 Acres
      Total Area for Panels (Square Miles) = 6,786 Sq. Miles
      Add 20% Area between rows of Panels = 8,143 Sq. Miles
      Square Miles in Lower 48 States = 2,959,064

      Percentage of Lower 48 to Gen 100% for all 50 States = 0.3%

      Now no one really thinks we’d use only solar. Let’s assume 40% from solar and another 40% from wind. The rest from hydro, geothermal, tidal, biomass and biogas.

      It would take about 150,000 3 MW turbines to produce 40% of the 4,143 TWh (terawatt hours) of electricity the US used in 2010. Foundations, access roads, transmission and ancillary buildings for those 150k turbines would use 36,040 acres. 0.0015% of US land area.

      To produce 40% of 2010 US electricity with PV solar we’d need to cover ~3,250 square miles with 20% efficient panels. That’s ~ 0.1% of contiguous 48 states. Existing rooftops, parking lots and brownfields would be more than enough.

      We’re moving to larger turbines and more efficient solar panels. The 0.0015% and 0.1% areas will shrink.

      • Thanks for the reply. Edit: I just noticed how late my reply is, sorry.
        Eroei is very important, even without considering finite combustionables because the predominate clean sources must be able to provide the energy to exponentiate themselves, power a growing world and deal with removing excess CO2. I will use a flawed example (a solar and batteries only approach) just to clearly get my point across:
        Imagine that solar is the “only” way to power future world, that it “only” gets an Eroei of 10, that all the sectors consumes energy at an “even” rate, 24/7 and that batteries are the only allowed mass storage option, which only get an ESOI of “only” 5.
        Since solar PV has a capacity factor of about 20%, ideally, 5 times capacity would have to be built, 4 of which to be stored. Now, that means 5x the energy is used to build that 5x capacity – which brings the overall EROEI to 2 (instead of 10). Furthermore, 4 parts of this energy must be stored in batteries that require 1/5th of the energy they will ever store – just to be made, bringing the overall EROEI to less than 2. Worst yet is that these batteries have an efficiency of only 66%, meaning we must build exactly half again more capacity which detriments the overall EROEI even more seriously (Ok, flawed again, but that’s to prove we can’t have low efficiency storage!)… Batteries shall be more like 90% eff!

        Each component in the above flawed example is a real and physical attribute. Eroei and ESOI of major energy supply systems are more essential than that of small sources and fossil fuels because fossil fuels will not become depleted before the biosphere fries. Clean liquid fuels such as ammonia or methanol made from fossil free energy, air and water will always have an ESOI of much less than 1, thus these must be a relatively minor part of a more “Eroei positive” total, in order to pan out, physically.
        Consider that in part, the above scenario is not flawed unless the Eroei and ESOI are listed as being lower than they really could be (and I believe they will use less energy than that to make!). Let us now consider another, not so flawed idea: That there are dozens of such renewable energy sources, each requiring different types of storage but each with an overall rather low EROEI after factoring in additional capacity, storage and even lessor efficiencies on that storage. Now, it should be clear that all that would could not pan out backed by some magical source (such as fossil fuels) OR if they always complimented each other (overlap is key for reducing storage costs but the weather does not always work to our advantage).
        There is a minimum positive threshold of overall (some call it “buffered”)EROEI which is probably best defined by economists well versed in physics education, that is required in order for RE systems to “pay for themselves”.
        This also concerns nuclear, too. It takes A LOT more time for the energy recoup for a reactor than for an oil refinery, for example, however, multiples of the nuclear plant need not be built and stored for each area served since it’s already (mostly) 24/7.
        My take on old nuclear is that it’ll reap a similar Eroei as wind and solar but will offer a much higher overall EROEI once all other adjoining systems are factored in (unless it goes meltdown). Therefore, in order to truly ditch fossil fuels, we need new nuclear that is of the molten salt reactor type (to prevent meltdowns and to lessen costly liability) which can burn its own wastes in a closed cycle (enabling insanely high Eroei).

        I agree that solar without storage is plenty good enough from a Eroei standpoint. It reduces coal in the day, too! Just that we might not be able to rely on it at night for the majority of our energy needs until the Eroei gets even better (and the weather, more cooperative).

        • Bob_Wallace

          Robert, you need to get past the EROEI speed bump.

          It’s the cost of electricity – the final cost – that is the important number.

          You’re getting bogged down in stuff like capacity factors and other stuff. Cut to the chase. It’s how much the power can be sold to the grid.

          In the US onshore wind is the least expensive way to produce a MWh of electricity. PV solar is tied for second with natural gas. Coal and nuclear are priced off the table.

          • I kinda have to agree because the Eroei is high enough – meanwhile, solar is really kicking butt. They’re building what looks to be about 100 kW at the elementary school in Sugarloaf, have already built similar installations around town and looks like many MW down the hill in Lucerne Valley!
            I figure less fossil fuels in the day and eventually, less at night, too.

  • RobS

    It is difficult to pin down exactly what these plants cost, as that will reveal the price that the owners are guaranteed by the power companies that buy this electricity, and that secret is closely held from the rate payers. However, a similar plant, Topaz, was revealed to have a total cost of $2.5B for 550 MW (peak) and an annual output of 1B KWh. If you amortize that cost over 20 years, that would come out to 12 cents/KWh. Add to that operating costs and profit. Compare that to the wholesale price of electrical energy – 2.5 cents/ KWh. The ratepayer has to come up with an extra 10-15 cents for every KWh that the power companies are forced to buy from these plants.

    But let’s keep this inconvenient truth to ourselves.

    • Bob_Wallace

      If 12 cents/kWh is correct then there was an incredible screw-up somewhere.

      2014 solar PPAs averaged 5 cents. Teasing out the federal subsidy makes them under 6.5 cents per kWh.

      • RobS

        Where are the payments to the solar energy farms published? My understanding is that this is closely held information.

        For small suppliers the capital investment is reduced by government subsidies. The total cost is borne by the taxpayer and the ratepayer.

        That 5 cents is double the wholesale rates, as published monthly by the EAI, meaning the ratepayer is still paying a premium for solar energy.

        • Bob_Wallace

          “Utility-Scale Solar 2013: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States”

          Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

          They report 5 cents for the average 2014 PPA. Solar receives a 2.3 cent per kWh subsidy for the first 10 years of production so cut it in half for a 20 year contract.

          Five cent wholesale would include power from paid off plants and dams. One has to compare new to new in order to get a fair comparison.

          Plus, do remember that the wholesale cost of coal does not include external costs which, if included, makes electricity from paid off plants expensive. The cost for electricity from a paid off reactor does not cover all costs. We pay more than the “wholesale rate” via our tax dollars.

          Replacing timed out coal or nuclear with new coal or new nuclear would cost multiples of what solar and wind cost. Look at the age of our coal and nuclear plants and consider that the average lifespan of both is about 40 years. Going forward we will be replacing worn out plants with cheaper sources. Then after those wind and solar farms have paid for themselves the cost of their power will drop lower than what we now spend.

          • RobS

            The information I referred to was the result for the 550 MW plant, Topaz. That was priced at 21 cents/ kwh, according to Fig 16 – much higher than I would have guessed. They must want a much faster write-off. That price translates into a retail price close to 30 cents, diluted by conventional energy costs.

  • Neptune

    I’m not very enthusiastic about cadmium and tellurium in thin film panels. It would be much better if some benign elements were used instead.

    • Larmion

      Cadmium in industrial applications is the subject of way too much scare mongering, much like lead, mercury and other heavy metals.

      For a start, CdTe is much less toxic than its individual parts. It barely triggered a positive in the Ames test and is no longer on the list of highly toxic compounds in the EU (which uses easily the strictest procedure for chemicals anywhere in the world). It is harmful to aquatic life, but it’s not that easy for CdTe from a solar panel to end up there.

      But that’s a bit beside the point. The main thing is this: is the substance likely to enter the environment during use? It isn’t in the case of a solar cell. Solid state devices are seldom very dangerous and in the case of solar cells, we have decades of encouraging field data to back that intuition up.

      A CdTe panel does need proper recycling after its useful life is over, that is true (like other solar panels, of course). But First Solar takes back old panels and recycles them. And they should: metals are rather valuable and extremely easy to recover, unlike many other waste materials.

      Toxic =/= dangerous. If a chemical is used in a closed loop manufacturing process with no significant leakage to the external environment, it’s safe. Simple as that.

      That takes good process design and maintenance, but I’m quite sure that First Solar has some half-decent engineers 😉

    • RobS

      CdTe solar panels are a step backwards, not forwards. They have a much lower efficiency than crystalline Si panels, but are cheaper, when measured as $/w(peak). Unfortunately, as panel costs go down installation costs become more important and it takes more of the inefficient First Solar panels (and more installation cost) to obtain the equivalent energy. It may well be that this project was forced to use some number of First Solar panels to counteract the criticism that American power plants now depend on cheap imported Chinese solar panels.

      • Bob_Wallace

        First Solar has a 21% thin film panel coming into manufacturing. That’s not much below the record silicon panel and higher than the average being sold.

        First Solar is a vertically integrated solar company. They manufacture panels and then use their panels to build solar farms. Then, once up and running, the farms are sold to investors.

        There’s likely some additional savings from using their own panels that makes them more competitive compared to panels sourced from another manufacturer.

        • RobS

          “It’s in the mail”

          The production material has a 14% efficiency. They propose an improvement to 16% in two years. Let’s stick with what they commit to deliver from manufacturing, rather than lab results.

  • Joseph Dubeau

    good news

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