Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘solar power plants’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about floating solar farms:

PETALUMA, Calif. — Solar panels have sprouted on countless rooftops, carports and fields in Northern California. Now, several start-up companies see potential for solar panels that float on water.

Already, 144 solar panels sit atop pontoons moored on a three-acre irrigation pond surrounded by vineyards in Petaluma in Sonoma County. Some 35 miles to the north, in the heart of the Napa Valley, another array of 994 solar panels covers the surface of a pond at the Far Niente Winery.

“Vineyard land in this part of the Napa Valley runs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 an acre,” said Larry Maguire, Far Niente’s chief executive. “We wanted to go solar but we didn’t want to pull out vines.”

The company that installed the two arrays, SPG Solar of Novato, Calif., as well as Sunengy of Australia and Solaris Synergy of Israel, are among the companies trying to develop a market for solar panels on agricultural and mining ponds, hydroelectric reservoirs and canals. While it is a niche market, it is potentially a large one globally. The solar panel aqua farms have drawn interest from municipal water agencies, farmers and mining companies enticed by the prospect of finding a new use for — and new revenue from — their liquid assets, solar executives said.

Sunengy, for example, is courting markets in developing countries that are plagued by electricity shortages but have abundant water resources and intense sunshine, according to Philip Connor, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

Chris Robine, SPG Solar’s chief executive, said he had heard from potential customers as far away as India, Australia and the Middle East. When your land is precious, he said, “There’s a great benefit in that you have clean power coming from solar, and it doesn’t take up resources for farming or mining.”

Sunengy, based in Sydney, said it had signed a deal with Tata Power, India’s largest private utility, to build a small pilot project on a hydroelectric reservoir near Mumbai. Solaris Synergy, meanwhile, said it planned to float a solar array on a reservoir in the south of France in a trial with the French utility EDF.

MDU Resources Group, a $4.3 billion mining and energy infrastructure conglomerate based in Bismarck, N.D., has been in talks with SPG Solar about installing floating photovoltaic arrays on settling ponds at one of its California gravel mines, according to Bill Connors, MDU’s vice president of renewable resources.

“We don’t want to put a renewable resource project in the middle of our operations that would disrupt mining,” Mr. Connors said. “The settling ponds are land we’re not utilizing right now except for discharge and if we can put that unproductive land into productive use while reducing our electric costs and our carbon foot footprint, that’s something we’re interested in.”

Mr. Connors declined to discuss the cost of an SPG floating solar array. But he noted, “We wouldn’t be looking at systems that are not competitive.”

SPG Solar’s main business is installing conventional solar systems for homes and commercial operations. It built Far Niente’s 400-kilowatt floating array on a 1.3-acre pond in 2007 as a special project and has spent the last four years developing a commercial version called Floatovoltaics that executives say is competitive in cost with a conventional ground-mounted system.

The Floatovoltaics model now being brought to market by SPG Solar is the array that bobs on the surface of the Petaluma irrigation pond.

“We have been able to utilize a seemingly very simple system, minimizing the amount of steel,” said Phil Alwitt, project development manager for SPG Solar, standing on a walkway built into the 38-kilowatt array.

“With steel being so expensive, that’s our main cost,” Mr. Alwitt said.

Long rows of standard photovoltaic panels made by Suntech, the Chinese solar manufacturer, sit tilted at an eight-degree angle on a metal lattice fitted to pontoons and anchored by tie lines to buoys to withstand wind and waves.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

photo: San Luis Obispo County

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about a United States Department of Energy official affiming that loan guarantees for nuclear power projects would continue in the wake of the Japanese reactor disaster. He also said loans for a “significant” number of large renewable energy projects would be issued in the coming months:

With many riveted on Japan’s reactor crisis, the head of the  Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program has affirmed that it will continue to finance nuclear projects in the United States.

“Assuming there is a desire in the Capitol to move forward, nuclear remains an important part of the energy mix,” Jonathan Silver, executive director of the Energy Department’s loan programs office, said on Wednesday in a presentation at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco.

“I point out here that the technology at use in the project we financed is quite different from the ones that have been affected by Japan,” he added. “Nonetheless, we obviously take this quite seriously.”

Mr. Silver’s remarks followed Congressional testimony in Washington by Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Chu said that the Obama administration continued to support nuclear energy, noting the president had requested that $36 billion be appropriated for the nuclear loan guarantee program.

During his presentation, Mr. Silver, however, focused on renewable energy.

“In 2010, the loan program was the largest financier of renewable energy program in the world with the exception of China,” said Mr. Silver, a former venture capitalist. “We invested more money into clean energy than the 10 largest project finance groups in the world, public or private sector combined, except China.”

As financing for multibillion-dollar renewable energy projects dried up in the recession and bankers became leery of taking risks on new technologies, solar and wind developers have come to depend on the loan guarantee program.

“The sun shines and the wind blows in red and blue states,” Mr. Silver said. “We are agnostic on the topic of geography and we are agnostic on the topic of technology other than is it innovative and potentially transformative at scale.”

The loan guarantee program has come under fire from all sides, with some green energy advocates complaining that the Energy Department has been slow to hand out cash for projects. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned whether the department has spent its money wisely and have moved to cut funding for the $71 billion program.

An audit released last week by the Energy Department’s inspector general found that poor record-keeping made it difficult to evaluate some loan decisions.

Mr. Silver did not address the audit on Wednesday but noted that although the loan guarantee program began under the Bush administration in 2005, it was not funded until 2008 and had only 35 employees when he became executive director in early 2009.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

photo: REC Solar

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The United States solar businesses boomed, as usual, in 2010, growing 67 percent to $6 billion, according to an annual report released Thursday by an industry trade group.

That’s been the story for the past several years, but what’s notable is that solar is no longer just a California thing. The industry is expanding to the East. Back in 2004-2005, California accounted for a whopping 80 percent of the U.S. market. In 2010, that share fell to 30 percent, with 258.9 megawatts of the 878.3 megawatts of photovoltaic power installed that year, according to the report prepared by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

New Jersey is now the nation’s second solar state, with 16 percent of new photovoltaic installations in 2010. And while it is no surprise that sun-soaked states like Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada are also in the top 10, the list also includes states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Texas, the country’s No. 1 wind power state, made the top 10 with 22.6 megawatts of photovoltaics installed in 2010. The rest of the country collectively put 135.2 megawatts of solar on its roofs.

Back in 2007, only four states installed more than 10 megawatts of solar. Last year, 16 states did. The U.S. now is generating a total of 2.6 gigawatts from photovoltaic panels.

But the domestic market was a relative laggard as the solar boom continued overseas.

“U.S. demand growth was, however, outpaced by a global market boom driven primarily by the German and Italian markets,” the report noted. “Over 17 GW were installed globally in 2010, more than 13 percent growth over 2009. As a result, despite U.S. demand expansion, the U.S. market share of global installations fell from 6.5 percent in 2009 to 5 percent in 2010.”

That could change in the years ahead, though, as subsidies subside in Europe and solar companies look to the U.S. as the big growth market.

The report predicts the U.S. solar market will double in 2011, but warns that expiring federal subsidies make growth in 2012 and beyond uncertain.

At least one Chinese solar company is betting the solar boom will continue. On Thursday, JA Solar announced it will begin construction this year of a new factory that will have a capacity to manufacture 3,000 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic cells a year, thanks in part to a government loan.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The California Legislature is moving to put into law a regulation requiring the state’s utilities to obtain a third of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. But how did California’s three big investor-owned utilities do in meeting a previous mandate to secure 20 percent of their electricity supplies from carbon-free sources by the end of 2010?

Close, but not quite. Overall, the three utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric — are getting 18 percent of their electricity from wind farms, solar power plants, geothermal, and biomass facilities, according to a new report from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Southern California Edison fell just short with 19.4 percent of its power coming from renewable sources. PG&E didn’t do as well but 17.7 percent of its electricity is green. The smallest utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, is the brownest of the bunch, with renewables accounting for only 11.9 percent of its power portfolio.

State regulators estimate that the three utilities will collectively hit the 20 percent target — one of the most aggressive in the United States — by the end of 2012. Of course, they have an even bigger mandate to meet eight years after that.

The good news is that the trajectory looks positive, if the growth in renewable energy generation in recent years is any guide. For instance, the percentage of green electricity in PG&E’s portfolio jumped from 14.4 in 2009 to 17.7 in 2010 while Southern California Edison increased its percentage of renewable energy by two points in 2010.

Hitting the so-called RPS — renewable portfolio standard — admittedly is a tricky business. A review of more than 200 renewable energy projects the utilities have signed shows that many have come online, some have cratered, and others are in limbo as environmentalist and developers face off over the impact of big solar power plants on desert flora and fauna.

There have also been big changes in renewable energy technology in recent years. The price of photovoltaic modules has plummeted over the past two years and utilities have been recently signing deals to buy electricity from photovoltaic farms at a pell-mell pace.

Still, expect stricter scrutiny of these deals as the 2020 deadline approaches, pressure mounts to make good on the 2010 mandate, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s new appointees to the public utilities commission weigh in.

Of the hundreds of renewable energy contacts the utilities have submitted for approval, only two have been rejected — a wave energy deal and a wind project.

Meanwhile, regulators list a project to transmit 200 megawatts of electricity to PG&E from an orbiting space-based solar farm as “on schedule.”

Beam me down, Scotty.

Read Full Post »

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Portlandia may not be the sunniest of places, but it’s exporting solar energy in the form of photovoltaic panels used to build carbon-free power plants.

On Wednesday, SolarWorld — the German photovoltaic module maker that operates a big factory in Hillsboro, Ore. — announced it would supply panels and help develop an 11.6-megawatt solar farm in the Southern California desert for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

That’s a fairly small solar power plant. But it’s notable in that SolarWorld is jumping into the solar power plant development business. It’s also notable that the LADWP, the nation’s biggest municipally owned utility — immortalized in the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown for making the water grab that enabled modern Los Angeles — is taking steps to wean itself from coal-fired power.

For SolarWorld, the LADWP deal is back to the future. Ben Santarris, SolarWorld’s public affairs manager, told me that in 1981, during the solar dark ages, the world’s first 1-megawatt photovoltaic power plant was installed in Southern California by a firm subsequently acquired by the German company.

Santarris said solar panel supply had hindered SolarWorld’s power plant ambitions. But with the expansion of its Oregon factory, the company is back in the game.

“Just recently, for instance, we finished engineering and supply for a 1 MW system for the city of Bakersfield, and we are working on other similar projects in the distributed generation range of utility-scale projects,” Santarris said in an email. “Expansion of our U.S. capacity to 500 MW, however, has allowed us to resume our former vigor in multi-megawatt projects.”

And while California utilities have cultivated a clean and green image — you won’t find coal-fired power plants in the Golden State — the dirty little secret is that out-of-state coal supplies about 20 percent of our electricity. The LADWP is particularly coal-dependent, getting about 40 percent of its power from the black stuff.

California regulators have prohibited the state’s three big investor-owned utilities from signing any more long-term contracts for coal-fired power, and the LADWP has pledged to replace coal with renewable energy.

As part of that effort, SolarWorld is supplying 46,322 photovoltaic panels for what is called the Adelanto project. The LADWP will own and operate Adelanto, now under construction, when the power plant is completed.

The deal comes after the region’s dominant utility, Southern California Edison, has signed 1,081 megawatts worth of deals for photovoltaic power plants just since January.

Increasingly, it’s a solar world and we just live in it.

Read Full Post »

photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how the nascent solar thermal boom in California’s Mojave Desert is being derailed by lawsuits from environmental, union and Native American groups:

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks after regulators approved the last of nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants to be built in the Southern California desert, a storm of lawsuits and the resurgence of an older solar technology are clouding the future of the nascent industry.

The litigation, which seeks to block construction of five of the solar thermal projects, underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas. On Jan. 25, for instance, Solar Millennium withdrew its 16-month-old license application for a 250-megawatt solar station called Ridgecrest, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel.

At peak output, the five licensed solar thermal projects being challenged would power more than two million homes, create thousands of construction jobs and help the state meet aggressive renewable energy mandates. The projects are backed by California’s biggest utilities, top state officials and the Obama administration.

But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds. The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects. Only one developer so far, BrightSource Energy, has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Like so many of this state’s troubles, the industry’s problems are rooted in real estate.

After President George W. Bush ordered public lands to be opened to renewable energy development and California passed a law in 2006 to reduce carbon emissions, scores of developers staked lease claims on nearly a million acres of Mojave Desert land. The government-owned land offered affordable, wide-open spaces and the abundant sunshine needed by solar thermal plants, which use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But many of the areas planned for solar development — including the five projects being challenged — are in fragile landscapes and are home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna. The government sped through some of the required environmental reviews, and opponents are challenging those reviews as inadequate.

“There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it,” said Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the United States Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to stop five of the solar thermal plants. “The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary.”

The risk that the suits will succeed in blocking construction could make it more difficult for the builders to get federal loan guarantees or attract private financing.

Officials with the Loan Programs Office of the United States Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, department guidelines classify litigation risk as a significant factor to be considered when qualifying renewable energy projects for a loan guarantee.

Brett Prior, a solar analyst with the GTM Research firm, said commercial lenders also viewed the suits as a negative. “In general, there are more projects chasing project finance than there are funds available, so the investment banks can be selective when deciding which projects to support,” he said. “Projects with lawsuits pending will likely move to the back of the queue.”

The conflict over the California projects has already accelerated a shakeout among competing solar technologies.

Tessera Solar announced last week that it had sold its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar dish project, which had become the target of two lawsuits. The buyer, AES Solar, develops power plants using photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops. The move follows Tessera’s sale of its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant in late December, a week after the company lost its longstanding contract with a utility. Calico is the subject of three lawsuits, and the project’s new owner, a New York firm called K Road Power, said it planned to abandon most of the Tessera solar dishes and instead use photovoltaic panels.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Read Full Post »

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Are Californians forking over too much green for green energy?

A new report from a ratepayers advocacy group found that the price of electricity in 59 percent of renewable energy contracts signed by the state’s three big utilities exceeded the market price referent, or MPR for all you utility junkies.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty regulatory calculus, the market price referent is based on the price of electricity from a 500-megawatt natural gas-fired plant, the dominant power source in California. The MPR is a benchmark to gauge the competitiveness of solar power plants, wind farms and other renewable energy projects.

The “Green Rush” report from the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which is part of the California Public Utilities Commission, generated headlines in a state that loves to hate its monopoly power providers.

“Of the 184 renewable energy contracts presented to the CPUC for approval since 2002, only two have been rejected,” the report states. “When these renewable contracts start delivering energy, costs will impact ratepayers.”

But a closer look shows that the reality is a bit more complicated.

The ratepayers advocate looked at contracts signed by California’s three big investor-owned utilities – which supply 68 percent of the state’s electricity – since the Legislature imposed a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, in 2002. The RPS required utilities to obtain 20 percent of their electricity supplies from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.

According to the report, 77 percent of the contracts signed by Pacific Gas & Electric were above the MPR as were 41 percent of those inked by Southern California Edison and 47 percent of deals with San Diego Gas & Electric.

Regulators keep the terms of those contracts in a black box so it’s impossible to know just how much more utilities are paying for renewable energy. Most contacts are for solar power.

However, not a dime gets paid until a project comes online and begins generating electricity. So, PG&E may well have agreed to exorbitant rates in a contract it signed in 2009 with a company planning to beam solar energy from space generated by an orbiting power plant (really). But unless those rockets lift off with their payloads of solar panels, the ratepayers are off the hook.

According to the report 14 percent of renewable energy contracts have failed so far and 15 percent have been delayed. Since 2002, photovoltaic module prices have plunged and as some projects are scrapped they inevitably will be replaced by cheaper technology.

In December, for instance, Southern California Edison abruptly canceled a longstanding contact with Tessera Solar for the 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant to be built in the Mojave Desert. A week later, Tessera sold the project to K Road Power, a New York firm that says it will replace most of the solar dishes, which have never been commercially deployed, with tried-and-true solar panels like those found on home rooftops. And this month, Tessera sold a second big solar dish project, the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley power plant, to AES Solar, which builds photovoltaic farms.

Solar module prices have fallen 50 percent over the past two years and it’s probably no coincidence that utilities increasingly are signing big deals for photovoltaic power plants.

When Southern California Edison this month submitted for approval contracts for 20 small photovoltaic farms that would generate 250 megawatts of electricity, all were priced under the MPR.

A word about the MPR: It’s somewhat a theoretical construct as it assumes fuel prices are fixed for the life of the power plant. Natural gas prices, of course, fluctuate wildly and currently are headed down. In a of couple years, who knows? The MPR also does not take into account the cost of carbon that may be imposed on greenhouse gas-spewing power plants in the years to come.

The ratepayers advocate, however, is justified in arguing for more transparency in the approval of these renewable energy contracts. Opening up that black box and letting in some sunshine just might spur more competition for solar contracts.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.