Solar PV power becoming much more abundant and affordable

Solar PV array harnesses sun's radiation for clean, sustainable power. PVs have been dropping in price, resulting in rapid increase in available capacity. Photo via CleanTechies.com.

Solar PV array harnesses sun’s radiation for clean, sustainable power. PVs have been dropping in price, resulting in rapid increase in available capacity. Photo via CleanTechies.com.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have been ascending in importance as a source of electric power, according to emerging data.

It’s mainly a result of plummeting costs, writes Peter Diamandis in a Sep. 18th article in the online Huffington Post news site. Diamandis is Chairman and CEO of XPRIZE, described as an “educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

According to Diamandis, “the price per watt of solar panels has gone down precipitously.” His commentary presents a graph indicating that “the price of solar panels has dropped 97 percent from 1975 to 2012”:

2_FPN-graph-Solar-panels-avg-price-per-watt_via-Peter-Diamandis

Diamandis presents another graph illustrating his contention that the “capacity for photovoltaic production has grown at an exponential rate over the last decade.”

3_FPN-graph-Solar-Annual-PV-prodctn-Mwatts_via-Peter-Diamandis

In another article, published April 24th on the online technical website CleanTechnica, Silvio Marcacci focuses on what he calls the “astounding” growth in U.S. solar energy capacity, with data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA):

Solar energy’s rapid growth in America is evident – even casual observers will note the proliferation of solar photovoltaics (PV) across the country. But sheer size is usually illustrated best by statistics, and in this case, the stat is 418%

That’s the percentage installed solar energy capacity grew in the U.S. from 2010-2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s April 2014 Electricity Monthly Update.

In 2010, writes Marcacci, America’s total solar capacity was a mere 2,326 megawatts (MW), representing just 0.22% of the nation’s total electricity generation capacity. “But the plummeting price of solar modules and increasing efficiency of installation has sent solar skyrocketing” he emphasizes:

By February 2014, 12,057MW of solar electricity generation had been installed across the country, a growth rate of 418% and 9,731MW in sheer gain. Solar’s share of total U.S. generation capacity now stands at 1.13% – and EIA estimates continued growth across the industry.

4_FPN_Graph-US-solar-capacity-growth-2010-2014-20140424_EIA-via-Cleantechnica-com

EIA, Marcacci points out, has noted the “quick move” of the solar energy industry from “relatively small contributor” into “one of comparative significance.”

In his own Huffington Post summary, Peter Diamandis concludes: “As we see in so many other areas of technology, solar power is only going to get better, cheaper and easier.” ■

Solar power production expanding in Texas

A Recurrent Energy solar PV farm in California's Mojave Desert. Planned West Texas installation would be similar to this. Photo: Recurrent Energy.

A Recurrent Energy solar PV farm in California’s Mojave Desert. Planned West Texas installation would be similar to this. Photo: Recurrent Energy.

Texas — where “energy” has traditionally been virtually synonymous with oil and gas — is one of the last places on earth where you’d expect solar power to start gaining a foothold … particularly with the ridicule and outright hostility toward solar coming from many conservative political potentates.

But, lo and behold, solar power development is suddenly having a surge in the Lone Star State. Long considered the energy equivalent of a puny weakling mainly because of its high cost, solar power has become much more attractive over the last couple of years as its cost has dropped precipitously.

Texas’s spectacular solar power surge is the focus of a June 4th examination in the Dallas Morning News. Headlining the “momentum” that solar power has been gaining in the state, the article notes that “vast swaths of ranch land have been optioned for the large-scale solar developments usually seen only in California.”

These recent developments “represent the strongest foothold the solar industry has achieved in a state that does not offer the lucrative subsidies that drive development in other parts of the country …” emphasizes the News.

The article contrasts the scale of Texas’s previous solar power development vs. the future:

From small rooftop systems to Texas’ largest installation, a 39-megawatt solar farm in San Antonio, the state counts less than 220 megawatts of solar power. On a per-capita basis, that is nearly the lowest in the country.

But with almost 350 megawatts of new capacity scheduled to be built by 2016, that is likely to change.

Arno Harris, CEO of the major San Francisco-based power development firm Recurrent Energy, expressed optimism, noting:

Texas is a large market. And it’s a growing market. … It’s really just economics. The solar industry has driven prices down to where solar can compete.

In May, Recurrent announced plans to develop a new solar farm in West Texas, “more than three times the size of anything that currently exists in the state …” according to the report. Designed to produce 150 megawatts of power, the new project was launched after Recurrent signed “a 20-year power purchase deal with Austin Energy.”

Furthermore, reports the News, “That comes just months after First Solar, one of the world’s largest solar companies, began construction on a 22-megawatt farm near Fort Stockton with plans of eventually expanding to 150 megawatts.”

According to the article, driving the recent interest in solar power “are environmental mandates from Austin’s and San Antonio’s city-owned utilities to vastly expand how much electricity they get from solar in the decade ahead.” In addition, “the cost of solar has come down dramatically over the last two years — Harris estimated between 60 and 70 percent.”

The price of solar still needs to become more competitive says the report, noting that Recurrent is “reportedly selling power at the rate of around 5 cents per kilowatt hour ….” That’s “roughly 25 percent above the current wholesale rate in Texas.”

However, the inexorably rising cost of more traditional, fossil-fuel energy sources like oil, gas, and coal suggests that solar will become increasingly more economically attractive as time goes on. “But considering the 20-year contract and that power prices are prone to rise in the decades ahead, solar seems close to winning contracts on pricing alone …” says the article. ■

Wind, solar PV power leap ahead in clean, sustainable energy “revolution”

Wind turbines at power generation installation. Photo: Inhabitat.com

Wind turbines at power generation installation. Photo: Inhabitat.com

Huge recent strides in both technology and cost reduction have facilitated major advancement in America’s deployment of both wind and solar PV (photovoltaic) electric power generation, according to a September 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

With the galvanizing title Revolution Now … The Future Arrives for Four Clean Energy Technologies, the report focuses on “technology revolutions” also in electric vehicles and LED lighting, but the developments in electric power production are by far the most significant from the standpoint of achieving sustainable future energy availability.

Wind power generation

The deployment of wind turbines to provide electric power has been “on a steep upward climb”, especially in recent years, according to the DOE report, which notes that the technology has benefited from increasing investment in research and development, propelled by funding from both government and private-sector sources. Particularly crucial has been the federal Production Tax Credit, subsidizing the industry with an additional 2.3¢ per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated over the first 10 years of wind turbine operation. This, says the report, has been “critically important to incentivizing deployment of wind energy.”

As a result,

Today, deployed wind power in the United States has the equivalent generation capacity of about 60 large nuclear reactors. … Wind is the first non-hydro renewable energy source to begin to approach the same scale as conventional energy forms like coal, gas and nuclear.

Since the beginning of 2008, says the report, U.S. wind power capacity has more than tripled — even despite a sharp rise in wind turbine costs from 2001 to 2009. In 2012, the USA deployed nearly twice as much wind as in 2011. “In fact, wind accounted for 43% of new electrical generation capacity in the U.S. — more than any other source.”

U.S. wind turbine power deployment and cost. Graph: U.S. DOE report.

U.S. wind turbine power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. DOE report.

The report highlights three technological factors it assesses as “key” to the recent advancement of wind power production:

Increasing turbine size — In terms of electric power generation capacity, says the report, wind turbines have become “progressively larger” over the past three decades. “In fact, since 1999 the average amount of electricity generated by a single turbine has increased by about 260%.”

Scale of production — Increasing turbine size and increasing productive capacity have contributed substantially to cost reduction, thus improving market competitiveness of this power production mode.
“As with many industries, increases in scale tend to drive down costs.” Thus, in recent years, prices have been trending downward.

Operational improvements — Operators of wind power generation facilities have acquired much greater sophistication in terms of their understanding and ability to adapt to dynamic wind patterns. In turn, This has helped nudge up what the report calls the “capacity factor” — i.e., the percentage of operational time that turbines are actually generating electricity.

The DOE report is quite optimistic about the future of wind turbine-generated power. And particularly as a sustainable energy source” Since wind is “100% renewable”, emphasizes the report, “it won’t ever run out.”

Thus,

Wind continues to be one of America’s best choices for low-cost, zero carbon, zero pollution renewable energy. The combined potential of land-based and off-shore wind is about 140 quads – or about 10 times U.S. electricity consumption today.

The report underscores aggressive development current;y under way in the wind power industry. “With continued technology improvements and policy support, the Department of Energy estimates that as much as 20% of projected U.S. electricity demand could be met by wind power by 2030.”

Solar PV power generation

Solar PV power generation installation. Photo: Solar Energy systems.

Solar PV power generation installation. Photo: Solar Energy systems.

The DOE is also enthusiastic about solar photovoltaic power developments and their prospects, proclaiming that “today we are in the midst of a generational shift to solar energy.”

A major reason for this, in the view of DOE, is the dramatic drop in cost, making solar PV electric production “increasingly within reach for the average American homeowner or business.”

This shift has come about because of a dramatic retreat in the price of solar PV modules — a trend that has accelerated over the past 5 years. Today, solar PV is rapidly approaching cost parity with traditional electrical generation from gas, coal and oil in many parts of the world, including parts of the U.S.

Describing solar PV electric power generation as “99% cheaper”, the report observes that

In 2012, rooftop solar panels cost about 1% of what they did 35 years ago, … and since 2008, total U.S. solar PV deployment has jumped by about 10 times – from about 735 megawatts to over 7200 megawatts. … During that same time span the cost for a PV module has declined from $3.40/watt to about $0.80 /watt, and this has catalyzed a rush in solar deployment.

Solar PV power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. Department of Energy report.

Solar PV power deployment and cost trends. Graph: U.S. Department of Energy report.

Much of this, says the report, is attributable to “advances in technology and increased economies of scale.” With more and more solar panels are fabricated and installed, costs have steadily dropped. Solar PV investment has also been significantly helped by government stimulus, such as a federal investment tax credit subsidizing 30% of the cost of installing rooftop PV systems. Similar PV incentive programs at the local level — as well as abroad (e.g., in the the European Union, Japan, China, and elsewhere — have also tremendously assisted development of the solar power industry.

Consequently, DOE sees a “bright future” for solar PV. “Today, Americans are increasingly turning to the power of the sun, which allows them the security of generating their own, low-cost, electricity.” ■

World’s largest solar thermal electric power generating complex nears opening in Mojave Desert

Three water towers of Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System illumunated by concentrated sunlight from heliostat reflectors. Graphic: RAFAA.

Three water towers of Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System illumunated by concentrated sunlight from heliostat reflectors. Graphic: RAFAA.

A major advance in innovative alternative electric power generation was achieved this past September with the opening of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System on about 5.5 square miles of public land in the Mojave Desert of California. The system deploys concentrated solar power (CSP) technology, concentrating reflected sunlight via special mirrors called heliostats in a process to heat water into steam for running turbines to create electric power.

Jointly owned by NRG Energy, Inc., BrightSource Energy, Inc., and Google, the Ivanpah facility, with an investment cost of $2.2 billion (and a $1.6 billion loan guarantee by the U.S. Department of Energy), is a project of BrightSource Energy and Bechtel. It’s designed to generate 377 megawatts of power, enough electricity on some days to power over 200,000 homes. The facility’s power output will be sold to two Californian utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.

Ivanpah solar thermal power project is located in Majoave desert, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Map: BrightSource Energy.

Ivanpah solar thermal power project is located in Majoave desert, between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Map: BrightSource Energy.

The Ivanpah complex, currently considered the world’s largest CSP installation, consists of three solar thermal power plants, each with a vast array of heliostats focusing and concentrating sunlight on a special receiver in each central water tower. In the towers, the water is heated, creating high-temperature steam that is then piped to run turbines connected to electric power generators. The three arrays together deploy a total of 173,500 heliostats.

According to the main Ivanpah solar facility website,

The entire Ivanpah project features an industry-leading low-impact design, resulting in maximum land-use efficiency. Our heliostat technology places individual mirrors onto metal poles that are driven into the ground, which allows vegetation to coexist underneath and around our mirrors; reduces the need for extensive land grading; and uses far fewer concrete pads than other technologies.

A particular advantage of the Ivanpah design over other solar thermal designs, according to BrightSource, is its use of a dry air-cooling system, allowing the power complex “to reduce water usage by more than 90% over competing solar thermal technologies using conventional wet cooling systems.”

A major drawback to CSP systems such as Ivanpah is the requirement for huge expanses of acreage and the effects of open-air heating, and the impacts of both of these on the immediate environment. In the case of Ivanpah, there are complaints of disruption to wildlife habitats, and birds have been harmed by the intensely concentrated solar radiation from the heliostats.

On the other hand, there are major benefits such as a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the near-elimination of raw material consumption for ongoing power production. According to the Ivanpah Solar website,

More than 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions will be avoided over the 30-year life cycle of the plant, equivalent to taking 2.1 million cars off the road. This solar complex also cuts major air pollutants by 85% compared to new natural gas-fired power plants.

For additional information on the Ivanpah facility, see:

Ivanpah Solar Power Facility

World’s biggest solar thermal power plant fired up in California

Welcome to Future Power Now

Image

Geothermal power plant, venting steam. Photo via Navigant Research.

Finding innovative ways to improve the production of energy — particularly for electric power generation — that are more efficient, sustainable, and environmentally sensitive, is crucial for the future of our planet.

Future Power Now intends to provide information, news, and analysis of this issue, especially by focusing on emerging technologies such as:

Carbon capture and storage (also called carbon sequestration) — Technology to capture and sequester, and hopefully re-use, carbon emissions from combustion of coal and other fossil fuels.

Environmentally compatible extraction of shale oil and natural gas — Technology to significantly upgrade and ensure the full protection of ground water and other resources in procedures such as hydraulic fracturing.

Environmentally secure protection in deep-water drilling — Technology to effectively prevent leakage and disastrous ruptures from deep-water petroleum extraction facilities.

Geothermal energy — Developments in electric power production from thermal energy extracted from deep within the earth.

Solar power — Developments in improving the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and ameliorating the environmental impact of solar arrays.

Image

Stillwater hybrid solar-geothermal power plant in Nevada. Photo via Inhabitat.com.

Concentrating thermal power (CSP) — This innovative form of energy production deploys mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large amount of sunlight (solar thermal energy) onto a small area, producing high heat. This can then be used to generate electrical power by channeling the converted heat to drive a steam turbine or similar device geared to an electrical power generator.

Wind turbine power — Developments in improving the efficiency of wind turbine power generation facilities and ameliorating their environmental impact.

Nuclear fusion — Developments in efforts to make this promising form of nuclear energy extraction (with insignificant residual waste) a reality.

Future Power Now (FPN) will focus both on citations and links to news and information from other sources, as well as the results of FPN‘s own original research and analysis. We hope you’ll continue to follow us!