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A map of the planned 250 MW solar power plant, showing preserved land (green) and installation area (blue).  (Source: NRG Solar/SunPower)

The plant will be located roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, just south of California's Bay Area.  (Source: Wikipedia)
Plant would take around 15-20 years to break even if electricity was sold at coal power rates

If there's one thing critics and proponents of solar power alike can agree upon, it's that solar power, like any commodity, will go down in price when it is produced at a greater volume.  Recently announced plants, like a 280 mega-watt (MW) installation in the Arizona desert go a long way towards achieving that sort of volume increase.

As does a new 250 MW installation in San Luis Obispo County, California which was formally announced this week.  Construction on the new plant will commence next year and is expected to create 350 construction jobs.

San Luis Obispo is a coastal county that is relatively rural and lightly populated by Californian standards.  It's roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, two of the state's biggest cities.

The new plant will be a joint venture between NRG Solar, Inc. and SunPower Corp. -- two veteran solar power firms (SunPower, alone, will have installed over 1.5 GW of solar power by the year's end).  NRG Solar is expected to pitch in $450M USD over the four year launch period.  NRG will own the plant, it is basically contracting SunPower to design, build, and operate the plant.

The plant will begin producing electricity in late 2011.  By 2012 to 2013 it is expected to reach full capacity, as construction completes.  The plant is expected to provide enough power for 100,000 households.

The new plant is named the "California Valley Solar Ranch". 

NRG Solar is seeking government loans from the U.S. Department of Energy to initially finance the construction.  While U.S. President Barack Obama recently handed out $1.85B USD in grants to solar power projects, the new installation likely will not receive any of this money.

Securing a government loan is critical to the NRG and SunPower's plan.  States Howard Wenger, president of the utility and power plants business group at SunPower, "The DOE is playing a critical leadership role in supporting renewable energy that provides economic and environmental benefits, as well as a secure, stable energy supply in the U.S."

The project has been in the works for the last two years.  It is expected to be operational for at least 25 years.

Challenges to the plant's success remain.  Currently environmental activists in California are vigorously resisting large solar and wind installations, which they fear will damage fragile ecosystems.  They have filed lawsuits to try to block similar projects.

The California Valley Solar Ranch project may placate these critics, thanks to the 2,399 acres it sets aside as a wildlife habitat.  The plant and associated facilities are expected to occupy 1,966 acres of land.

Another challenge is the underlying economics.  While the California Public Utilities Commission has agreed to buy 25 years worth of power from the installation, likely at an inflated price, it remains to be seen exactly how much money the plant will make.  Coal power costs around $0.06-$0.08 USD per kilowatt-hour, so if the solar plant's power was sold at an equivalent rate, it would take around 15 to 20 years for the plant to break even.  Thanks to large markups to alternative energy power, though, it should break even much sooner, boosting NRG Solar and SunPower.  Nonetheless, some consumers may be unhappy with paying this kind of markup so that their power can be "greener".

Still, it's common knowledge that you have to invest up front to gain access to new technology.  And with large scale installations like this new one in California and the currently developing one in Arizona, the cost per kilowatt hour of solar power in the U.S. should fall over the next few years.

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RE: Massive is all relative.
By dirtyfoot on 12/1/2010 12:13:08 PM , Rating: 3
the cost difference is massive even when decommissioning and waste storage is factored in. this 250mw plant will cost over 1billion to build while a 1,700mw nuke will cost about 5 to 6 billion and the nuke will run at about 90% efficiency for 60 years. while this solar plant will run at about 25%(at best)efficiency for only 25 years. so when u factor all that in these solar plants r a waste of time, space and money.

the nuke also takes up a lot less space even when u factor in waste.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By FITCamaro on 12/1/2010 12:18:28 PM , Rating: 4
Waste is only an issue because our government makes it to be one by refusing to allow reprocessing.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By aegisofrime on 12/1/2010 12:34:49 PM , Rating: 2
I have always wondered why the US Government won't allow reprocessing. On a related note, why was the Integral Fast Reactor project canceled ? It seemed like such an awesome piece of tech.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By Chemical Chris on 12/1/2010 12:42:01 PM , Rating: 4
You should also consider Thorium based plants: They would be cheaper, safer, and produce less than 1% of the waste on conventional light-water reators (the waste is 'safe' in 200 vs 1 million years, also).
Or just run around wiki :)


RE: Massive is all relative.
By ekv on 12/1/2010 4:18:50 PM , Rating: 2
Thorium base reactors actually benefit from current LWR designs, since, if I'm not mistaken, spent fuel can be used to jump-start thorium reactors.

There is also Travelling Wave Reactors (TWR). Sure, the technology is paper only at this point, and you have somebody like Bill Gates (partially) bank-rolling the hype. But it wasn't too long ago the "best" microprocessor was an 8086.

[read the article, but then read the comments!]

RE: Massive is all relative.
By Rasterman on 12/1/2010 12:36:44 PM , Rating: 4
Lasting for 25 years is false, first of all the solar technology used in these panels hasn't even been around for 20 years to test. The only reason most people state that time frame is that what they are warrantied for. Further more some of the very first solar cells manufactured (of a much inferior design) are still running at 95% efficiency with no problems after 21 years (source below)! Given that there are no moving parts there is no reason to believe that solar panels won't last 50-100 years, or indefinitely for that matter. Sure diodes and inverters may come and go which are easily replaced.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By Solandri on 12/1/2010 8:02:28 PM , Rating: 5
Further more some of the very first solar cells manufactured (of a much inferior design) are still running at 95% efficiency with no problems after 21 years (source below)!

That's a very deceptive and dishonest way to phrase it. Your source says it was rated at 22 W when brand new, and produces 19 W after 21 years. That's a 14% drop in efficiency, which is pretty much par for the course, maybe a bit better than you'd expect. (Numbers I've seen say a 25%-30% drop after 30 years.)

The only way you get the 95% figure is by noting that the system was original rated at 20 W. So initially it operated at 110% the rated power, and now it operates at 95% the rated power. The way you phrased it makes it sound like there was only 5% degradation after 21 years, when that's clearly not the case.

The problem with degradation of solar panel efficiency is that the panels take up space which is often limited (e.g. rooftop). If the efficiency drops too much, you are actually better off scrapping them and installing new panels. Which is probably exactly what happened and why your source managed to get these used panels for so cheap.

The same problem crops up due to the technology improving. Output efficiencies have climbed from about 12% to 15% for commercial-grade panels over the last 20 years. If you figure the 12% panels have degraded to 85% original output, they're putting out ~10% now. So scrapping them and replacing them with 15% panels will give you a 50% boost in power generation for the exact same amount of area covered by the panels.

By biohazard420420 on 12/3/2010 1:47:31 AM , Rating: 2
Not to push hard for solar power as I think its best as an ADDITION to nuclear coal and wind power but there is a great vid of "solar power" at probably its most efficient the link is below.

Until you get that kind of efficiency solar power will never become a primary power source nor will in my opinion any "alternative" power sources become the primary power source for the US.

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