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Published on April 5th, 2015 | by Tina Casey

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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+.



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