I know, I know. All our heart goes out to distributed solar, but utility-scale solar installations in the United States are very much alive and kicking. In fact, of the 6 GW of new solar capacity added in the US during 2014, 63% of it came from utility-scale plants.
This included two mammoth projects — Topaz Solar and Desert Sunlight — 550 MW each, both developed by First Solar. However, both of these plants could not, as the phrase goes, “bask in the sunshine” even for a year (actually not even seven months).
The Solar Star solar power plant, with a total capacity of 579 MW, went fully online on June 19, 2015, as per the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). For now, it is the largest solar power plant in the world, with a lead of 29 MW over its closest competitors.
BHE Solar, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy (known as MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company until 2014, one of the investment arms of Warren Buffet) owns the projects. SunPower Corporation, which is the engineering, procurement, and construction contractor for Solar Star, will also cater to its operations and maintenance.
Our regular readers would be aware that BHE also owns the Topaz Solar plant.
The electricity produced by Solar Star is being purchased by the utility Southern California Edison under a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA). The specifics of the agreement haven’t been publicly disclosed.
Quite interestingly, at the moment, the world’s three largest solar plants — Solar Star, Desert Sunlight, and the Topaz project — are all located in California, USA.
Solar Star, which was formerly called Antelope Valley Solar Projects, is actually two projects — Solar Star 1 and Solar Star 2 — co-located in Kern and Los Angeles Counties in California, USA. Installed across 3,230 acres, the projects employ 1.7 million SunPower monocrystalline silicon PV panels.
The construction for the project started in January 2013, and was scheduled for completion towards the end of 2015, so it’s quite a feat that they could manage to wrap up 6 months ahead of schedule!
The Solar Star Projects will deliver enough electricity to power the equivalent of approximately 255,000 homes. The projects have also created approximately 650 construction jobs over a 3-year construction period. In addition to this, up to 40 operations and maintenance jobs, including 15 full-time site positions, will be created during the life of the project.
In terms of emissions, more than 570,000 tons of carbon dioxide will be avoided annually — the equivalent of removing over 2 million cars from the road over 20 years (source).
The plant is built on what SunPower calls “Oasis Power Plant” technology. Essentially, to cash in on the large-scale plant (and thus, the opportunity), a modular design is used for rapid deployment. Per the company, this helps save money, time, and land resources as well.
Each 1 MW “power block” integrates SunPower Trackers with SunPower solar panels, pre-manufactured system cabling, an inverter, and a power plant operating system. The power block kits are shipped pre-assembled to the job site for rapid field installation.
Since cleaning such a large facility would otherwise consume a lot of water, and time, SunPower has automated the process. This, the company claims, will consume 90% less water and is 4 times faster than manual cleaning methods (more information here).
The projects also employ SunPower C1 Trackers (single-axis), which are said to boost annual energy yield by 25% as against fixed-tilt systems. The tracker uses a single motor to control many rows.
According to data released by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research over the 2014 performance of the US solar market, the utility PV segment is becoming more competitive. The report points out that more than 4 GW of centralized PV capacity had been procured by utilities based on solar’s competitiveness with natural-gas alternatives.
2015 is expected to be another good year for utility-scale solar in the US. However, there are concerns that the aggregate net energy metering (NEM) capacity limit in California could be reached by the last quarter of 2015 or early 2016. As a result, installers are pushing to expedite sales through the first half of 2015.
Once the cap is reached, the next version of NEM is scheduled to take effect — although, decisions regarding NEM rule revisions could be announced by the CPUC as late as December 2015.
Want to know what 579 MW of solar awesomeness looks like? Open up Google maps on this link and see it for yourself!