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Solar Expansion

Technologies are scaling up quickly to meet industry needs.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2009

DeRosa facility; SCE and PGE are each looking to develop and own some 250 MW of PV over the next five years; and CSP developers are looking to add thousands of megawatts in new capacity to the nation’s grid (see Figure 1) .

So solar certainly is on a roll, but much work remains to be done.

“I was recently on a plane sitting next to this investment banker type who’s telling me about a solar project his firm had gotten involved in somewhere in the Southwest,” says Ryan Sather, senior manager of generation and energy markets for global business consultant Accenture. “He said the one area they failed to consider was the cost of keeping the mirrors clean. They hadn’t anticipated the dust and the annual cost of having to clean it. It wasn’t part of the financial model and that tripped them up.”

From an electric utility standpoint, Sather’s story is an apt metaphor. While there’s plenty of optimism, there’s still plenty to prove—and the industry is bound to make mistakes.

“Solar makes a lot of sense in certain parts of California and the Southwest,” Sather says. “But utilities are used to dealing with rotating equipment and this is a whole new animal. A lot of questions still need to answered. How big does the plant have to be? What’s a cost-effective capacity rating? How will solar impact grid operations? And what are the O&M costs?”

The current crop of plants might provide some answers, giving utilities the technology experience they need to make the most of solar energy’s expanding future.