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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 muIIet on 12/1/2010 12:30:31 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, thanks. So is solar better used on a house instead of a power plant?

RE: Massive is all relative.
By kattanna on 12/1/2010 1:21:20 PM , Rating: 2
So is solar better used on a house instead of a power plant

solar panels, or PV solar, yes.

solar thermal systems that use large arrays of mirrors to heat a primary fluid, usually water, to generate steam to turn a turbine is more of industrial generation thing. It also has the added feature of when they heat salts, they can use the heat to continue power generation even after sunset.

they are also systems that use a large mirror to produce heat that a stirling engine can use to generate power. also more of an industrial size generation thing.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By Solandri on 12/1/2010 8:20:48 PM , Rating: 3
Solar thermal systems are actually really efficient. They can typically pay for themselves in 1-3 years. The problem is the energy they provide is almost exclusively water-heat. That's great if you're in a cold climate and need to heat up the water from the main a bit before pumping it into your water heater. But it's very, very difficult to do other things with that energy. While stirling engines can get a lot of the latent heat energy out, they're very slow and take a lot of time to do it. You're better off just finding ways to use the heat directly.

PV solar is best in remote sites and low-power applications where it's disproportionately costly to hook up to the power grid. Those emergency phone boxes on the side of the freeway? Solar. A pump to bring up groundwater for drinking at a desert rest area? Solar. The weather station mounted on the side of a mountain in the middle of a national park that needs to radio out its readings? Solar.

For home applications, the ~20 year payback time is really crippling since most people only stay in a home for about 7-10 years. So the best application for large-scale PV solar is actually commercial plants like this one. You just have to make sure they're in a sunny locale, remote location so bringing in electricity from elsewhere is relatively expensive, and accept that it's only going to provide supplemental power to take some of the load off the mains during peak hours. San Luis Obispo fits those requirements almost perfectly. Sure nuclear would be better, but I'm not sure there's enough people living in the area to warrant construction of a full 3- or 4-reactor nuclear plant. You typically need a population of 0.5-1 million to justify the cost of building something that large.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By hyvonen on 12/1/2010 8:30:38 PM , Rating: 2
For home applications, the ~20 year payback time is really crippling since most people only stay in a home for about 7-10 years.

Mine pays itself off in about 7 years - that's for the tax break goodness. And since they are productive for some 20 years or so, I'd like to think that they also increase the value of the house a bit.

RE: Massive is all relative.
By kattanna on 12/2/2010 10:58:12 AM , Rating: 5
that's for the tax break goodness

glad I could help you buy them

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