U.S. Department of Energy

    U.S. Utilities Pursue Large-Scale Solar Power Facilities

    March 4, 2009

    Utilities in or near the southwestern United States are planning to build or buy power from massive concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, while utilities throughout the nation are investing in solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants, creating growing momentum for the utility deployment of solar power throughout the country.

    In terms of CSP plants, Southern California Edison (SCE) recently reached an agreement with BrightSource Energy for 1,300 megawatts (MW) of solar power, which qualifies as the world's largest solar power deal to date. The agreement calls for a series of seven projects, starting with a 100-MW CSP plant that could start operating near Ivanpah, California, in early 2013. BrightSource Energy employs "power tower" technology, in which a field of thousands of flat mirrors, called heliostats, focuses sunlight onto a boiler mounted at the top of a tower. Steam produced in the boiler is piped to a turbine, which drives a generator to produce electricity. A commercial power tower was recently built in Spain, but only demonstration plants have been built in the United States. In addition, NRG Energy, Inc. signed an agreement with eSolar in late February to develop three solar projects totaling as much as 500 MW, also using solar power towers. See the press release from Edison International, SCE's parent company, as well as the NRG Energy press release (PDF 104 KB). Download Adobe Reader.

    In terms of PV power plants, California's Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) appears to be taking a leadership position, as the utility announced in late February that it plans to develop and own up to 250 MW of solar power facilities, while buying power from another 250 MW of solar energy facilities owned by independent developers. The California Public Utilities Commission has also approved two previous large contracts that PG&E has signed with solar power developers, including a contract for 550 MW of thin-film solar PV from Topaz Solar Farms on the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County, as well as another contract with High Plains Solar Farms for 210 MW of silicon solar panels. SunPower, Inc. owns the latter project, and the former project was owned by OptiSolar, Inc., but First Solar, Inc. just bought out all of OptiSolar's projects, including the PG&E project. In the fourth quarter of 2008, First Solar managed to cut the manufacturing cost for its thin-film solar modules to 98 cents per watt, breaking the $1 per watt cost barrier. The company's annual production capacity is expected to exceed 1,000 megawatts per year by the end of this year. See the PG&E press release, the CPUC press releases about Topaz Solar Farms and High Plains Solar Farms, and the First Solar press releases about OptiSolar and its cost achievement.

    While California has a definite lead in solar power development, utilities in other states are now pursuing megawatt-scale solar PV projects. In New Jersey, the Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G) has proposed to spend $773 million to support the development of 120 MW of solar PV power through many projects located throughout its service territory. In New York, Governor David Paterson announced that the Long Island Power Authority is planning to support 50 MW of new solar power, including 13.1 MW of smaller projects developed by enXco and 36.9 MW to be installed by BP Solar in two large projects at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory. And down in the Sunshine State, Florida Power & Light (FP&L) has just broken ground on a 25-MW solar PV facility, the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, which should be completed by year's end. See the press releases from PSE&G, Governor Paterson, and FP&L.