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Renewable Reality Check

How solar PV could redraw the map for green energy and grid investment.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2009

Phase 1A (modeling of resources, final report accepted May 21, 2008) and Phase 1B (ranking of CREZs, final report issued January 2009, with an update issued February 24). In Phase 2, the steering committee will refine its analysis of CREZ generating potentials to include project siting constraints, and will develop a statewide conceptual transmission plan. Phase 3 will advance the plan into proposals for specific transmission projects that can be approved, financed, and built to provide renewable energy to customers across the state in the most cost-competitive and least environmentally harmful ways.

Together, the Phase 1A and 1B reports run over 750 pages. Industry comments on various drafts run another 200 pages. Dozens of issues have emerged in the discussion, but one issue begs a paradigm-busting question: Can the state of California meet its aggressive RPS goals—including the recent call by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to go 33 percent green by 2020 (see Executive Order S-14-08, issued Nov. 17, 2008) —by relying on thin-film solar PV technologies, installed on flat commercial rooftops and previously disturbed land (such as at industrial parks, vacant lots, or existing substations), to cover the gap known as the renewable “net short,” and at the same time avoid the need for new massive investments in electric transmission?

The Phase 1B final report and update of February 24 maps out 29 distinct CREZs with resources potentially capable of delivering about 200,000 GWh/yr.—more than three times the estimated renewable energy net short of 59,710 GWh/yr. But those findings are based upon the Phase 1A modeling of resource values and costs, which has sparked widespread dissatisfaction. Simply put, the critics charge that the RETI process has defined solar thermal and solar PV potentials in terms of obsolete technologies—parabolic trough for solar thermal, and silicon crystalline tracking for solar PV—thereby yielding estimates of levelized costs that are way too high.

The Phase 1A report estimated levelized output costs of $201-$276/MWh for solar PV, based on capital costs at $6,500-$7,500/kW. This price contrasts with the nominal $3,500/kW installed capital costs for the SoCalEdison roof top solar-PV project noted here previously. The disconnect has drawn widespread criticism, especially from solar industry manufacturers, developers and advocates, such as First Solar Inc., OptiSolar, the Large-Sale Solar Association, and even environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife.

To worsen the problem, the RETI Phase 1B report concedes that these estimates could be faulty, noting that cost reductions for thin-film solar PV resources has been “dramatic” of late (see Fig. 3, citing cost findings from DOE’s Solar America Initiative.) Yet the RETI report declines to accept these lower cost figures as definitive, despite the implications:

“In the Phase 1A Report, Black & Veatch identified tracking crystalline as the proxy technology to represent solar PV resources. The costs for this technology are relatively high, and as a result the base case does not include development of any solar PV resources. Unlike most other renewable technologies, capital costs in the photovoltaic industry have significant potential to decrease, and there is considerable commercial interest in utility-scale, ‘thin film’ systems.”