What's the Score in Utility-Scale Solar?

A lot of big projects in development, a lot of which won't get built

2 min read
What's the Score in Utility-Scale Solar?

Among the two or three people who follow this blog closely I'm probably known as a skeptic about utility-scale solar--that is to say, about when "grid parity" will be reached in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and electricity from photovoltaics will be able to compete, without subsidies, with natural gas, nuclear, and wind.

When I visited a small PV generating plant on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border several years ago, the economics of the project turned out to be so dubious, its designers refused to tell me how much the plant had actually cost to build. Executives at Applied Materials convinced me that making and selling PV manufacturing machinery is a very good business as long as subsidies last, but left me unconvinced it will be a viable business without subsidies any time soon.

That said, it seems only fair to note, 18 months later, that a lot of utility-scale projects are being built in the United States and that a great many more are on the books. According to a list compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association, PV plants with a combined capacity of close to 200 MW have come into operation since the beginning of 2010, and plants totaling another 356 W are under construction. Some of the utility-scale generating plants such as Florida Power & Light's 25-MW DeSoto Solar Energy Center (above) are quite large indeed. The biggest so far is Pacific Gas and Electric's 55 MW plant in Boulder City, Nevada.

Looking to the future, utility-scale PV projects with a combined capacity of 18 GW are in development, and there are plans for concentrating thermal projects adding up to more than 9 GW. To put that in perspective, even allowing for the fact that solar plants generate electricity only about a third of the time, if all the utility-scale solar were to be built, combined central solar capacity would be equivalent to about 10 nuclear power plants--not trivial.

But it seems to me a fair guess that most of those plants will not actually be built. In many cases environmental considerations--land use, availability of water to clean panels, transmission connections--will doom them. At both the Federal and state levels subsidies may be erratic. By one recent count, 29 states and the District of Columbia have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards,  20 with special requirements for solar. But in many cases those solar "carve-outs" or "set-asides" include caps on permissible costs, which utilities and their contractors have been unable to meet. PV costs remain very high compared to competitors, and of course the competition--above all natural gas, selling at record-low prices--is a moving target.

The papers are full of stories quoting experts to the effect that PV is on the cusp of a technological breakthrough and near grid parity. I still don't see it.

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