Clean Power Agua Caliente utility scale solar

Published on April 5th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Big Money Bets On Utility-Scale Solar — But We Still Heart Distributed Solar

April 5th, 2015 by  

Our friends over at Wiki-Solar have just come out with a new report on the global utility-scale solar market, and it underscores the huge hand that the Obama Administration has had in transforming the US solar industry from wallflower to prom queen.

Of the major infrastructure funds investing in utility-scale solar power stations globally, Wiki-Solar finds that the US companies NRG Energy and Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy lead the pack. Both companies won their spot on top with the help of funding from the US Department of Energy. (Wiki Solar, a project of the consulting firm WolfeWare, has been producing great utility-scale solar reports for years)

Agua Caliente utility scale solar

Utility-Scale Solar Vs. Distributed Solar

The showcase utility-scale solar project for NRG and MidAmerican is the Agua Caliente solar power plant in Arizona, pictured above. At the time of completion, it was the largest PV (photovoltaic) power plant in the world, clocking in at 290 megawatts of electricity generation capacity.

The US Department of Energy helped to get Agua Caliente off the ground with a $967 million loan guarantee, so group hug all you Stateside taxpayers.

What we’re not so huggy about is the huge amount of real estate that utility-scale solar occupies. Definitions of a utility-scale solar power plant vary from 1 megawatt and up to 5 megawatts and up, and even a relatively small project can involve some serious disruption of habitat.

The entertainment company Six Flags, for example, has been taking some heat for clearing 18,000 trees off 134 acres to build a 21.9 megawatt solar power plant to run its Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey — though the company does plan to replace those, and then some, with 25,000 more to be planted elsewhere.

Utility-scale solar also opens up a can of worms in terms of transmission infrastructure and grid resiliency in case of natural disasters.

That’s why we’re fans of smaller-scale distributed solar, which lends itself to rooftops, brownfields, parking lots, and other parcels of land that have already been developed for human use. Distributed solar also reduces the need for vulnerable transmission pathways, which is part of the reason why the distributed solar market has been exploding.

More Group Hugs For Utility Scale Solar…

Getting back to that thing about US firms leading the world in utility-scale investment, Agua Caliente pales in comparison to another new US solar project mentioned by Wiki Solar.

That would be the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in California, which just cranked up operations late last year. Originally a First Solar project (as is Agua Caliente), Topaz is now owned by the company BHE Renewables. That’s short for Berkshire Hathaway Energy, the new name of Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings company.

First Solar is involved in a couple of other federally supported projects that caught Wiki Solar‘s attention. Along with GE, the company is behind the development of the 550 megawatt Desert Sunlight project, which won $1.88 billion in Energy Department loan guarantees.

Then there’s First Solar’s Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One, currently owned by Exelon. This 230 megawatt project won a $646 million loan guarantee.

SunPower is another firm on Wiki Solar’s list, for developing a California project called Solar Star (more accurately, a pair of projects called the Solar Star Projects). This pair of co-located projects tips the scales at a combined 579 megawatts. BHE Solar (a subsidiary of BHE Renewables, natch) is the current owner.

Rounding out the US companies highlighted by Wiki Solar is Consolidated Edison, which has been diving into energy storage projects as well as utility-scale solar for the US Northeast.

(Note: we’ve combined Wiki Solar’s summary of its report with some additional information from the Energy Department.)

…And Distributed Solar, Too

The Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office (LPO) is behind the utility-scale solar loan guarantees. LPO is less active in small-scale distributed solar, presumably because private financing is more readily available for distributed projects.

In 2011, LPO issued a partial guarantee for a $1.4 billion in support of a 752 megawatt group of projects to be distributed among 750 rooftops at properties managed by the industrial real estate firm Prologis. NRG was also in on the deal. Apparently private financing came through, enabling LPO to withdraw (no taxpayers were harmed in the making of this deal, btw).

We’re not seeing anything under the name “Project Amp” since then, but both Prologis and NRG have been going full steam ahead with rooftop solar projects.

Meanwhile, in terms of taxpayer support, the Energy Department’s SunShot initiative has been going at small-scale distributed solar hammer and tongs, particularly in regard to rooftop solar.

More Solar, More Jobs

Utility-scale or small-scale, all this federal support adds up to a healthy need for skilled workers, so we’re not going to get on President Obama’s case for tooting his own horn about solar jobs.

Last week the President went to a new solar installation at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, to provide a backdrop for the new Solar Ready Vets job training program, where he mentioned that the solar industry has been adding jobs “10 times faster than the rest of the economy.”

The goal is to train 75,000 workers for solar jobs within the next five years. If you think that’s wildly optimistic, check out some of the solar jobs pilot projects that Solar Ready Vets is modeled on.

Stay tuned.

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Image Credit: Courtesy of NRG via US Department of Energy.

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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+.

  • We need to use rooftops in (sub)urban areas, residential AND commercial, and solar carports/solar-EV charging canopies in urban areas first! Then, if necessary, big solar plants elsewhere — though I bet if you covered all available/good solar residential/commercial rooftops AND parking lots with solar, we wouldn’t need solar in environentally fragile areas far removed from where electricity is used.

  • spec9

    People are foolishly letting the big companies take advantage of solar PV. Install a system on your roof before it is too late. The tax-credit is going away and utilties are fighting net-metering tooth & nail while developing their own solar PV systems.

    We need more rooftop. Distributed ownership, less need for transmission lines, power generated right where it is consumed .. . it is a great system.

  • wildisreal

    What is the delay with simplified, nationwide permitting and interconnection standards for distributed generation like Germany has been doing for years? This is the no-brainer low-hanging fruit for SunShot but it seems like they either don’t understand that or don’t want to do it. The latter is the obvious suspicion.

    The private financing options for DG are still very expensive, lots of improvement possible there too (with federal guidance/assistance).

    I see SunShot as lots of talk, lots of grants, little real action. PV is not that complicated folks. DG is where the jobs are; I grow tired of waiting for real federal leadership.

    • Offgridman

      The delay is due to the politicians and the political system that has been allowed to be built.
      The change is going to have to come from the bottom up from a more involved populace.
      The renewable change happened in Germany because it was what the people wanted and they agreed to pay higher prices short term for the longer term benefit.
      That same situation does not have to happen in the US because the costs of renewable energy has come down so much thanks to expansion and the worldwide market.
      If we want to see a change in the system in the US it is really up to the voters to elect the people that will make it happen, and not follow the popularity contest elections that have mainly happened here for years.

  • JamesWimberley

    The photo shows yet another solar farm on a lot bulldozed free of life. It really, really isn’t necessary. No photo of a rural British solar farm is complete without cuddly lambs grazing underneath, wildflowers for bees, or even geese. This may be cynical PR in part, but it’s also the right thing to do.

    • Offgridman

      You’ve mentioned this before, and I do totally agree that especially at this time of early development putting solar and or the pictures of it in the best PR way possible should be done.
      At times though your critique is when pictures are taken mid or just post installation when the ground cover has not had a chance to regrow. Or in the case of this one in the background it is obvious that this is an entirely different environment from Great Britain and there is never going to be any grass growing the way that is shown in the picture you shared.
      Possibly another difference too is that more of these big projects in the US are utilizing tracking for which the sites are going to have to be leveled to some extent in order to coordinate the mechanisms.
      So all being said and done yes the PR aspect is important, but just as important at least it is solar being installed on these leveled sites and not some type of fossil fuel generation.

      • JamesWimberley

        These plants in the American Southwest are in true or semi-deserts. The natural land state has a fragile ecosystem of sparse low shrubs and tough grasses, providing food and habitat for a pyramid of insects, animals and birds, such as the burrowing owl. Leaving as much as possible of the vegetation presumably reduces the dust and frequency of cleaning. I suppose maintenance workers would have to be trained, and given suitable clothing, against the risk of poisonous snakes and Gila monsters.

        Can anybody provide me with an actual evidence-based argument why it is necessary to destroy the habitat in a solar farm? Do prairie dogs eat polythene-covered cables?

        • Offgridman

          There is no denying that some of the early big farms did not take the ecological impact into consideration. That situation is improving here in the US with stricter regulation and the example where some recent farms in California had to be relocated or changed in other ways.
          As for what it is that damages the cables I don’t know if it is Prairie dogs, weather, or what. But of the installations that I have seen any of the cables near or under ground are run in conduit.
          I agree with you that the PR factor, ecological impacts all of this needs to be taken into consideration. However it is just as important that these projects happen and get us off from fossil fueled supplied electricity. Considering what is happening with climate change getting these done soon is really the big priority, even if they aren’t garden pretty with sheep and ducks under them afterwards. That is something that can be corrected after we quit making the world uninhabitable.

          • JamesWimberley

            You are missing the point. The English sheep and geese are there to head off criticism and prevent the backlash that is slowing onshore wind. They are doing a good job.

  • Shiggity

    “What we’re not so huggy about is the huge amount of real estate that utility-scale solar occupies.”

    This actually isn’t a problem at all. The beautiful thing about solar PV is that you can put it on trash land, contaminated land, land that cannot be developed for commercial or residential, land that has no water, the list goes on.

    Natural gas, coal, and nuclear all require land that is extremely high value. You typically need a large fresh water asset for cooling nearby in addition to much larger infrastructural road requirements.

    • Matt

      Yes solar is great for brown field development. But that isn’t always done. For example the Six Flags could have covered a portion of their parking lot (massive) instead of cutting down 134 acres of trees. And sorry even planting 4x the number of trees is not the same. First there is the size issue, then the diversity issue, lost habitat until the new tree grow. Often the replant is single tree, which is not as deathly as a mix forest. The picked up all the issue of clear cut “forestry”; when if they add do the parking lot not only would they get lots of NRG; but they would have shaded the cars of visitors. A nice perk after being in the park all day. And the “extra” cost of placing the panels higher, likely have been offset from the cost of buy the 134 acres and clearing the site.

      • Matt

        On the positive for Six Flag, they likely pay all year based on the peak 15 min use during the summer. I know that was Kings Island in Cincinnati, when I did a engineering tour in 1980. So they will get a fast payback. Since AC was/is their #1 cost, I could never figure out why they didn’t do thermal storage. Run chillers at night to make ice that you melt during the day. The AC was already done from chilled water.

        • Martin

          Yes I do agree using the parking lot, exisiting buildings etc for the solar, but remember sometimes company’s do not do what makes the most sense, but what appears to be the cheapest , easiest solution.
          But since solar has the best potential for us, humans, as in for RE/clean energy, any installation is better than FF.

          • Parking lot solar makes more sense than virtually anything else, environmentally, but, sadly, because of the (metal) framing structures, it’s more expensive than cutting down trees. That’s too bad, really too bad, because parking lot solar cools cars and is perfect for adding EV-charging stations. Sure wish someone would come up with a cheap way to build solar carports that would make it as cheap, if not cheaper, than putting huge solar farms in environmentally sensitive areas, often far from (sub)urban areas where the electricity is used.

      • Omega Centauri

        Parking lot PV is more than twice as expensive as ground mount. Cost matters.

        • spec9

          If it costs twice as much then they are clearly doing it wrong and need to develop better parking lot PV structures.

          • Omega Centauri

            I can’t disagree with that. But, clearly from the standpoint of a business manager choosing a project, developing a better method isn’t part of his job.

      • spec9

        Yeah, I agree that ground based solar arrays are pretty stupid. When we run out of warehouses, homes, apartment buildings, office buildings, THEN start with ground based systems. But until then, why not install on dual-use properties especially since the building itself will consume much of that electricity right where it is generated.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Cost is a factor.

          Commercial solar prices are dropping so we should expect installation rates on commercial buildings to increase. But at the same time some of our best solar resources are where not many buildings are built.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Yeah, you’re weird. Brand spanking new utility scale solar in Australia is $1.96 US a watt, while rooftop solar is about $1.60 US a watt. Those costs are before tax or subsidy.

            Okay, maybe we’re the weird ones, but the fact is that in Australia even if utility scale solar were free it would not be able to compete with rooftop solar thanks to what we’re charged for distribution.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Let’s put land needs in perspective. Below – the green rectangles show how much of the world’s land would be needed if we got 100% of our electricity from solar.

      It’s unlikely the world will get 50% of its electricity from solar.

  • Will E

    Its not —utility-scale Solar versus distributed Solar—-
    Solar is needed, fast and a lot of it. Utility scale Solar and distributed Solar go together, no limits.

    • Omega Centauri

      Both sectors help the industry climb the learning curve, they really support each other.

    • spec9

      The utilities are making it very much a war. The are trying to kill off net-metering. We need to fight back. You don’t see rooftop solar PV people trying to kill off utility scale solar but you do see the utility scale solar people trying to kill off rooftop solar.

      • Well, you see vertically integrated monopolistic utilities trying desperately and unfairly to hold onto their ridiculous government non-competitive market sponsored ride, and, in most cases that means: a) they’re waging war on distributive solar; b) in SOME cases they’re trying to use utility scale solar to maintain their monopoly; c) in MOST cases they’re just hanging on to the old fossil fuel/centralized model, in particular with natural gas central plants.

        • TatuSaloranta

          I think it is sometimes too easy to see malicious intent behind actions. I am not saying there aren’t utilities that play hard-ball and who have vested interest in all the wrong places.
          But at the same time it is good to remember that utilities actually are on the hook for keeping electricity supply reliable, stable, balanced AND cost-effective.
          So if you look at the situation from the perspective of an engineer who has to support design for electrical grid, things look very different than from perspective of an individual customer who only has to consider her electricity bill, and overall production of electricity from her solar panel installation.

          From purely technical perspective integration of more variable generation methods is very much challenging, and what is more worrying is that literally no one knows what are the levels of variable production that will cause stability issues. It is easy to say “just use all solar electricity home owners might feed in” when you do not have to worry about actual solving either day/night and seasonal cycle, or other impedance issues. Or the fact that there is huge difference between residential electricity rates and actual variability in bulk wholesale rates at grid level.
          And even with studies that suggest that problematic levels are higher than worst earlier estimates, that does not change the fact that if and when problems arise, it is YOUR job to resolve it. And it won’t help a lot to say “I told you so”, even if your earlier warnings were unheeded.
          This makes it understandable why utilities are conservative regarding levels of RE they are willing to take in without more studies for safety, or discussions on what are actual fair rules about compensation.

          One important way to solve the challenges is to define rules to include externalized costs of FFs. Utilities optimize for defined rules, and if costs are favorable for using RE sources, they can be quite rational. Our local utility is fairly friendly towards roof-top solar, for example, partly because state law sets specific quotas of RE that they must use by specific years. Plus solar does help with peak loads.

      • TatuSaloranta

        But the fact remains that rooftop solar simply can not provide majority of electricity. Even in areas with extremely high rate of deployments, like Australia (23% as per — so probably up to half of total potential), it remains a minority slice of total production.
        While one third of peak sounds high, overall annual slice is closer to 5%. Doubling that would get us to 10% of electricity, which is nice, but not enough, even with maximum deployment to provide majority of electricity, much less majority of all energy.
        Or, take Germany: with a decade of high activity, solar (including utility) produces 7% of total electricity. Once again, great achievement, but without other REs (wind), not enough.

        So regardless of attitudes of utilities, both are needed. Rooftop since it really it really is “free” deployment, and as close to consumption is one can get. But utility because there just isn’t enough rooftop space to provide electricity for the whole society.

        Along with hydro power and geo-thermal, distributed solar really is as close to ideal energy source (from environmental impact viewpoint, not from production profile), so it should get priority.
        But it can’t solve the co2 problem alone without friends. And at that point, utility solar and wind are the next best friends. Even if existing utilities have relationship that’s best classified as “it’s complicated”.

        So here’s to trying to work out the differences. Utilities do have a point because they MUST worry about grid stability, balance, keeping things working despite noise from variable production.
        But they don’t have the monopoly on mandating how those issues get resolved.

        • Ronald Brakels

          Actually in Australia it is possible to get the majority of our electricity from rooftop solar alone. Firstly, we have enough roofspace. (This is an important consideration.) Secondly, the lower cost of installing rooftop solar goes, the more incentive people have to install systems that generate much more electricity than they require in order to increase their own self consumption and avoid paying for expensive grid electricity. And this applies even if people receive no feed-in tariff for the electricity they export to the grid. Feed-in tariffs here for new solar are already either low or zero. So provided rooftop solar is cheap enough and the Abbotts of the world don’t get in the way, it is quite possible for Australia to get over half its electricity from distributed solar.

          • TatuSaloranta

            I hope you are right here. It’s just that numbers that I have seen have not suggested they would add up. It it possible that I have misread some (say, maybe some installations are under-sized?), or have other wrong assumptions.

            Do you have links that would give insight as to how potential installations on residential and commercial properties could add up to half the electricity production? (either in some parts, or perhaps nation-wide)

            I am not as worried about financial part — I agree that costs are going down, and also if political will was found, that part can be fixed, whereas physical part (roof area, solar insolation) are what they are. And even efficiency rates will reach their limit at some point.
            But if potential installation area is sufficient, there is hope.

          • Ronald Brakels

            In Australia there is about 50 square meters of residential living space roof per person. If half of that is used for 20% efficient solar then at an Australian household average of of about 4.7 kilowatt-hours of sunshine per square meter with PV that operate at 70% of optimum due to system loses and sub-optimal panel positioning, it will produce about 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, which is more than half of Australia’s per capita electricity consumption. And that leaves out Australia’s huge amount of commerical and industrial roofspace, and also leaves out things such as parking lot solar and ground based point of use solar built next to a mines, factories, farmhouses, or whatever.

          • Ronald Brakels

            In Australia the average rooftop solar installation is quite small. Maybe half our systems are one to 1.5 kilowatts. Systems of 1.5 kilowatts or less used to receive a larger subsidy. Many people are locked into their small systems in order to continue to receive a high feed-in tariff, but some people at least will start to come off high feed-in tariffs next year creating a market for solar upgrades. Currently the median sized new household system is 5 kilowatts in South Australia and approaching 5 kilowatts nationally. And this still doesn’t come close to using up the available roofspace for most installations. At Australian installation costs and feed-in tariffs north, east, and west facing roofs are good for panels, and even south facing installations are no longer a sign of insanity, although it should still be a last resort for people in the southern half of the country.

            Commercial solar is really only just taking off with larger installations of 25 kilowatt-hours or more averaging around $1.21 US a watt to install. Household solar averages around $1.61 US a watt. These figures are before tax or subsidy. (Why leave out tax? Because it varies from country to country and I want to make it easy to compare and point out how cheap it really is.) At Australian retail electricity prices, rooftop solar is the cheapest source of electricity available to Australians and thanks to our high distribution costs would outcompete grid electricity even if the cost of generating it was zero cents per kilowatt-hour.

        • Offgridman


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