Big Time Solar Around the Corner?

In wind, geothermal, tidal, biomass, hydrogen, and so on, amazing developments are emerging every day. Advocates of specific options make them seem like the Silver Bullet solution to all our problems even though some (corn ethanol, for example) create as many problems as they solve.  In any event, the real issue is that we should be acting as if there is no silver bullet (which I believe to be the case) and pursuing as many silver bullets as possible. 

For many, active Solar Power generation is their silver bullet even though solar electricity remains a miniscule part of the US electrical grid and non-competitive with baseload power systems.  But … but … but … there are things in the works that look to change the equation.

In the latest Business 2.0 and over at Green Wombat, Todd Woody has a series of posts discussing Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) projects that are starting to produce electricity and look to be soon generating far more. What is exciting is that these plans are starting to at the levels of fossil-fuel electrical plants, 500+ megawatt capacities … Todd suggests six approaches to concentrated solar power that could “power the world”

To a certain extent, this is back to the future. Woody discusses the Luz plants, built after the oil shocks, that still reliably deliver 354 megawatts when the sun is shining.   

Let’s take a quick look at some of these:

Stirling Energy Systems has “signed agreements to provide up to 900 megawatts of solar energy to San Diego Gas & Electric and another 850 megawatts to Southern California Edison.”

One of the interesting things about these discussions is the highlighting of pure business advantages of these solar systems. For example,

Besides, the economics of the old power industry don’t necessarily apply to Big Solar. Get a contract for, say, a 500-megawatt gas-powered plant, and investors won’t see a return on their investment for years.

Each Stirling dish, however, begins generating electricity — and cash — the moment it’s planted in the ground. “Before we’ve got very many of them out there, we’re going to know if everything is working right,” Liden says. “If not, we’ve got plenty of time to make the corrections.”

And, well, with hundreds (if not thousands of towers) in each ‘plant’, having several broken will reduce power generation but won’t take the “plant” offline.  Maintenance can be scheduled so that the “system” doesn’t come down.

Now, there is Brightsource Energy, successor to Luz, which has plans for building towers in 100 megawatt clusters. And, for building the components in (basically) assembly line processes, modular construction for rapid assembly on site.  “BrightSource currently is negotiating a contract with California utility PG&E (PCG) to supply 500 megawatts of solar electricity beginning in 2010.”

Australia’s Solar Systems is taking concentrating processes from space, claiming to have “developed the capability to concentrate the sun by 500 times onto the solar cells for ultra high power output.”  The initial, grid-connected plant will provide 154 megawatts.  The expectation is for electricity at 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

All of these developing systems have paths where they will be cost competitive with fossil fuel power generation using natural gas and coal with any form of carbon fee.

Todd’s Business 2.0 article and Green Wombat posts (BrightSource; Solar SystemsStirling Energy Systems) are worth checking out.

This is exciting stuff, the competition toward deployability of viable systems that offer a real potential of pricing fossil fuel systems out. And, these systems are fast developers and deployers … the first 500 megawatt plant just three years after contact signing?  What could be deployed by 2020? 

The Congress is looking to set a 15 or 20 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard to be achieved by 2020.  Developments like these suggest that those are far from stretch goals …


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