U.S. Utility-Scale Solar Industry Primed to Explode

U.S. Utility-Scale Solar Industry Primed to Explode

WASHINGTON, DC, March 18, 2010 (ENS) – The utility-scale solar industry is ready for what one executive today called “explosive growth,” and new national polling data released today shows that 75 percent of those surveyed support the development of solar energy plants on public lands.

“The polling data we are releasing today confirms what we already knew,” Solar Energy Industries Association president and CEO Rhone Resch told reporters on a conference call. “The American public overwhelming supports the development of solar energy.”

The survey of 500 U.S. adults over the age of 18 conducted from February 24 through February 26 by Gotham Research Group found that solar power was the top choice (38 percent) as the best use of public land.

Respondents also selected solar farms and wind power (22 percent each) as the top energy sources that the government should prioritize for support, beating out natural gas (16 percent), nuclear (16 percent), oil (11 percent) and coal (4 percent).

“It is time for our elected officials to respond to this high public demand and enact policies that allow solar to compete with other energy sources on a level playing field,” said Resch.

SkyTrough solar concentrating collector uses new technology developed by the Department of Energy with industry partners. Weather-proof, low-cost, high-reflectance polymer film replaces heavy, glass mirrors. (Photo courtesy SkyFuel Inc.)

Leveling the playing field means more research and development funding for the solar industry and government help to overcome technical and regulatory barriers to feeding solar power into the grid, Solar Energy Industries Association spokesperson Monique Hanis explained in an interview.

“The fossil fuel industries have had decades of subsidies and support,” said Hanis. “It’s more than just getting money. You do have to invest as we have done in other energy sectors, but we need structural changes too.”

“We need standardized interconnection and net metering so that when solar power is created it can connect into the grid,” she said. “We need plans and fair cost allocation for transmission upgrades and extensions,” she said, “and the reduction of onerous permitting requirements.”

The Obama administration is already moving towards siting utility-scale solar developments on public lands and streamlining the permitting process.

In June 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, announced that federal agencies will work with western leaders to designate tracts of U.S. public lands as prime zones for utility-scale solar energy development, fund environmental studies, open new solar energy permitting offices and speed reviews of industry proposals.

“President Obama’s comprehensive energy strategy calls for rapid development of renewable energy, especially on America’s public lands,” said Salazar. “This environmentally-sensitive plan will identify appropriate Interior-managed lands that have excellent solar energy potential and limited conflicts with wildlife, other natural resources or land users. The two dozen areas we are evaluating could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.”

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from the sunny state of Arizona, told reporters on the teleconference today, “When Americans talk about solar energy, they usually envision rooftop systems, which are great. But it’s important to also realize the significant role that utility-scale solar has to play.”

“Large solar installations use economies of scale to achieve significant cost savings and help Americans to get the most solar bang for the buck,” she said.

Across the United States, five new utility-scale solar pilot plants came on line in 2009 and there are more than 100 utility-scale solar projects under development.

These projects represent more than 17 gigawatts of capacity, enough to provide clean power to 3.4 million households and to create more than 100,000 American jobs, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“The 17 gigawatts of utility-scale solar projects proposed in the United States offer great opportunities for companies like ours,” said Tom Hecht, vice president of sales and marketing, Schott Solar, a German corporation with a North American division.

“Not only will these projects produce clean, reliable energy, but they will create tens of thousands of high-paying, American jobs in manufacturing and construction trades from coast to coast,” Hecht told reporters on the call. “This would include significant new jobs at our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in New Mexico, where we manufacture both high-quality photovoltaic panels and concentrating solar power receivers.”

While the Sun shines on every state, the sunny Southwest is attracting utility-scale solar developments most rapidly.

“With a successful 10 megawatt pilot project, more than 3,000 megawatts in the pipeline, and two recent PPAs [power purchase agreements] with Nevada Energy and PG&E, we are primed for explosive growth in the United States, as is the entire utility-scale solar sector,” said Tom Georgis, vice president for development, SolarReserve.

Molten salt power towers (Illustration courtesy UTC)

Headquartered in Santa Monica, California, SolarReserve is a solar energy project development company that holds the worldwide license to the molten salt, solar power tower technology developed by United Technologies Corporation.

To generate electricity this way, sunlight is concentrated and directed from a large field of tracking mirrors called heliostats to a receiver on a tall central tower. Molten salt from a cold salt tank is pumped through the receiver where it is heated to 1050 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heated salt flows into another tank where it is stored, maintaining 98 percent thermal efficiency, and eventually pumped to a steam generator. The steam drives a standard turbine to generate electricity day or night, whether the Sun shines or not.

SolarReserve expects to begin construction this year on a 100-megawatt solar power tower near the town of Tonopah in Nye County, Nevada. When completed, the facility will supply 480,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually – enough to power up to 75,000 homes during peak electricity periods.

In the spring of 2011, SolarReserve plans to break ground on a 150-megawatt solar power tower 30 miles northwest of the city of Blythe in eastern California. When completed, this facility will supply 450,000 megawatt hours, enough to power up to 68,000 homes during peak electricity periods.

“We know that solar energy can be generated cleanly, reliably and with a stable fuel price,” said Marc Ulrich, vice president of renewable and alternative power with Southern California Edison.

“Solar is California’s great untapped renewable resource,” said Ulrich, “and we look forward to integrating more into our energy generation portfolio and to working toward the state’s renewables goal.”

California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard program requires electric corporations to increase procurement from eligible renewable energy resources by at least one percent of their retail sales annually, until they reach 20 percent by the end of 2010.

Southern California Edison now procures 17.4 percent of the electricity it sells from renewable sources.

“The Sun provides more energy in an hour than all the coal mines and oil wells do in a year,” said Sean Garren, a clean energy advocate for the nonprofit Environment America. “Solar energy will play a major role in weaning the nation from dangerous, polluting, unstable and, in many cases, increasingly expensive forms of energy.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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