Artist rendering: Recurrent Energy
A couple of stories on the boom in distributed solar. As I wrote the New York Times:
As big solar power plants planned for the desert Southwest remain bogged down in environmental disputes, utilities increasingly are turning to so-called distributed solar rooftop arrays and small photovoltaic farms that can be built close to transmission lines.
Over the past few weeks, some 1,300 megawatts’ worth of distributed solar deals and initiatives have been announced or approved. At peak output, that is the equivalent of a big nuclear power plant.
Two weeks ago in California, regulators authorized the utility Southern California Edison’s program to install 500 megawatts of solar on commercial rooftops. A few days later, they recommended that Pacific Gas and Electric, the dominant utility in Northern California, be given the green light for its own 500-megawatt initiative that aims to install ground-mounted photovoltaic arrays near electrical substations and urban areas.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District said in January that it took only a week to sell out its 100-megawatt solar program, which offers developers the opportunity to build photovoltaic projects of up to five megawatts.
And last week, the New York Power Authority announced a program to install 100 megawatts of solar arrays around the state.
“All of this is a great indication that solar prices are continuing to get a lot cheaper and that results in scale,” said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes renewable energy.
You can read the rest of the story here.
In my Grist column, I took a deeper dive into distributed solar:
I spotted a rare critter on the streets of San Francisco this week—a smiling, optimistic businessperson.
Then again, Ron Kenedi is in the solar panel business.
“The big news as I see it is the demand—demand keeps growing everywhere,” says Kenedi, vice president of Sharp Solar, the renewable energy arm of the Japanese conglomerate. “What really amazes me every day is how much demand has grown throughout the world.”
Kenedi is not one for Pollyannaish optimism—he started in the business around the time Ronald Reagan took down Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof.
“I used to have to go out there with a sandwich board on to get people interested in solar,” he says. “Now I can’t even walk down the street without people talking to me about solar and wanting it on their home and businesses.”
That’s because there’s a boom in so-called distributed generation under way—placing solar panels and pint-sized photovoltaic farms at or near where electricity is consumed.
Until very recently, distributed generation just couldn’t compete on cost with Big Solar—massive megawatt solar thermal power plants usually located in the desert.
Big Solar has had the edge by the dint of the gigawatt-size deals utilities have struck with developers like BrightSource Energy, eSolar, and Solar Millennium. Large solar thermal power plants—which use mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives a generator—could make electricity cheaper than photovoltaic panels, which produce electrons when the sun strikes semiconducting materials.
Now that’s all changing. Over the past year, a number of Big Solar thermal projects have become mired in disputes over their impact on fragile desert ecosystems and the lack of transmission lines to connect them to cities. In December, California’s powerful Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, introduced legislation to ban renewable energy development on more than a million acres of the Mojave Desert she wants to protect as national monument.
Photovoltaic module prices, meanwhile, have plummeted by about 30 percent over the past year thanks to an oversupply of modules and the rise of low-cost Chinese manufacturers. Thin-film solar companies, which make solar cells that use little or no expensive polysilicon and which layer or print them on glass or metal, began to produce solar modules for less than a one dollar a watt—long considered a key milestone for making solar competitive with fossil fuels. Though less efficient than conventional crystalline solar modules, thin-film solar cells can be manufactured more cheaply, making it particularly suited for use by photovoltaic power plants.
You can read the rest of the column here.