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Utility-Scale Solar Plants, Including Concentrating Solar Power (CSP), Are Operating, But Costs Are Massive, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Governments in many nations, including the U.S. and Spain, have provided massive financial aid to firms that constructed the world’s largest (utility-scale) solar plants—those capable of powering thousands of homes at once.  At various times, this aid has included loan guarantees, tax credits and research and development credits.  These projects may utilize one of a few technologies, including photovoltaics (PV), concentrating solar power (CSP) or concentrating photovoltaics (CPV).  Some of these projects also include methods that enable them to store a portion of their output for future use.  The business model is based upon selling power at wholesale to utilities that, in turn, distribute the power to end users.
Many of these early, massive projects were based on CSP and CSV, and frequently turned out to be financially, operationally or environmentally unviable.  Critics state that complicated and costly solar projects, such as the $2 billion Ivanpah, are not cost-effective.  Spain-based Abengoa, the lead developer of many major renewable projects in the U.S. and elsewhere, filed for bankruptcy in 2016.  Tonopah Solar Energy, owner of a major solar plant in Nevada, filed for bankruptcy in August 2020.
However, falling prices for simple solar panels (similar to those installed on the rooftops of homes) have created a comeback for utility-scale, large-capacity solar projects.  Solar panels are vastly easier to install and operate than complex systems such as concentrated solar power (CSP), even when a large project requires tens of thousands of such panels.
A new boom in large, utility-scale installations based on traditional solar panels is underway.  This is due to multiple factors, including growing demand for renewable energy, readily available investment money, declining costs and generous government incentives.  Major investors have backed or acquired immense new solar farms, based on solar panel technologies.  These investors are encouraged by the fact that utility companies are forced by state legislation to provide a growing percent of their electricity from renewable means.  Berkshire Hathaway Energy purchased the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in California from First Solar.  The electricity will be sold under a 25-year contract with PG&E, a major utility firm that is facing a requirement that 33% of California’s electricity come from renewables by 2020.
As of mid-2021, in excess of 800 utility-scale solar power plants were under planning or development, capable of generating as much as 70,000 total megawatts capacity.  Some $25 billion in total guarantees have been approved in the U.S., covering projects, mostly in the Southwestern United States.  However, the availability of a guaranteed approval did not mean that a project would be able to find all of the necessary funding, obtain environmental and construction approval and successfully negotiate a wholesale distribution contract with a buyer for the power.  Also, in many cases, environmentalists are attempting to block these plants for various reasons. 
A boon to operators of large-scale solar facilities is the use of robots to assist with installation and panel cleaning, which are both labor intensive.  Alion Energy, a manufacturer in Richmond, California, installed its robotic machines in three projects in California, Saudi Arabia and China.  Serbot, a Swiss firm, manufactures robots that clean solar arrays as well glass windows in skyscrapers.

SPOTLIGHT:  Community Solar Power Installations
Local solar power sites of modest size are rapidly growing in popularity.  In the U.S., this trend is referred to as community solar.  Typically on tracts from 20 to 200 acres, community solar is designed to create enough power to provide much of the needs of a local neighborhood.  Several types of ownership and financing are utilized, ranging from ownership by private investors to partnerships between electric utilities and local governments.  In many cases, “shares” equal to the cost of one solar panel, are sold to homeowners in the neighborhood.  While interest in this concept has been strong, it has historically been growing in the handful of U.S. states with the most supportive laws and incentives.  These states include Florida, Massachusetts, New York and Minnesota.  Investor interest could wane if generous tax credits become no longer available. 

     KPMG forecasted India’s share of electricity generated by solar means to rise from less than 1% in 2016 to 12.5% in 2025.  The $2.5 billion Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka, which spreads over 20 square miles with millions of solar panels capable of generating two gigawatts of electricity (the equivalent of two large nuclear plants), was commissioned in April 2019.  Two other solar parks, the five-gigawatt project in Gujarat and the 2.3-gigawatt project in Rajasthan are underway.
Solar Thermal (or “CSP,” Concentrating Solar Power):  This technology utilizes solar arrays of curved mirrors that focus sunlight onto solar cells, which concentrates sunlight 500 times.  These cells’ efficiency in sunlight conversion can be greater than 38%, compared to the 20% to 25% efficiency for standard solar cells.  CSP can also be used to heat fluids to extreme temperatures (up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit), which produce steam that then drives a turbine.
A state-of-the-art CSP project, the Delingha 50-megawatt plant in the Qinghai province in China, went into operation in October 2018.  The plant was built by China General Nuclear Power Corporation (, and uses parabolic-trough CSP technology, supplemented by nine-hour molten salt heat storage.
A landmark project in the Mojave Desert in California called Ivanpah opened in early 2014.  The $2.2 billion project, built by BrightSource Energy ( and initially owned by Google and NRG, is one of the largest solar thermal projects in the world, engineered to have a capacity between 370 megawatts and 392 megawatts, enough to power more than 140,000 homes during peak hours of the day.  Ivanpah is comprised of three separate plants built in phases over several years.  Unfortunately, Ivanpah has faced a vast number of challenges and problems.  It was delayed and had cost overruns due to the need to protect the endangered Desert Tortoise.  Later, heat from the plant’s 170,000 mirrors was estimated to be killing 3,500 birds yearly.  It also has turned out to be more time-consuming and costly to start up the plant each day (with natural gas used to produce steam at start up).  BrightSource also supplied a 100-megawatt central tower plant to ACWA Power’s 700-megawatt DEWA plant in Dubai.
In December 2015, an immense, 580-megawatt plant in Morocco, the Quarzazate CSP plant, saw its first unit go online.  Nations in the Middle East and North Africa may be the best hope for future utility-scale development by solar firms.
CSP can be combined with unique power storage technologies.  For example, a system of heat storage based on pressurized water or molten salt allows solar heat to be captured during daylight hours, and then used to turn turbines for electric generation during evening hours.  CSP can also be combined with traditional natural gas generation at one location.  This may be referred to as ISCC (integrated solar combined cycle).
The $2 billion, 280 megawatt “Solana” plant in Arizona can generate electricity up to six hours after the sun goes down.  Heat is stored in giant tanks of molten salt.  Solana began commercial production in October 2013.  Its storage capabilities inspired the California Public Utilities Commission to approve a rule that requires its three investor-owned utilities and other electricity providers to install storage technology by 2024.  It remains to be seen whether or not effective storage technologies can be implemented by that time.  Due to exorbitant costs, construction of new CSP plants has tapered off worldwide.
Space Solar Power (SSP):  First proposed in 1968 by then-president of the International Solar Energy Society Peter Glaser, this technology, based on collecting sunlight from a geostationary orbit high above the Earth would enable the gathering of constant light that is eight times as strong as that on the ground.  A solar panel on the orbiting structure would convert the light to electric current, which would then be beamed to Earth by microwave to a specified antenna.  Researchers estimate that satellites with solar panels would have to be more than one mile long.  The catch is that the final output, which is only a few hundred watts per kilogram, is too low to justify the enormous costs related to such a project, initially estimated to be $305 billion (in 2000 dollars).  Since then, costs may have fallen somewhat due to technological advances.
The University of Neuchatel in Switzerland developed a technique using a film created for use in space that yields power densities of 3,200 watts per kilogram.  There is also interest in SSP in Japan, where the JAXA space agency has expressed interest in launching a satellite that would spread into a sizable solar array capable of beaming 100 kilowatts of microwave or laser power to Earth.
In late 2022, the European Space Agency approved Solaris, a research study on the cost effectiveness of building solar farms in outer space and transferring collected solar energy to electricity grids on Earth via microwave beams.  In September 2022, engineers at Airbus successfully transmitted two kilowatts of power collected from solar cells to receptors more than 30 meters away in Munich.  In a separate initiative, a UK government assessment of SSP found that a satellite capable of producing two gigawatts of electricity (about the same as a terrestrial power station) might be possible as early 2040.  However, many technical and financial hurdles remain.

SPOTLIGHT:  Floating Solar Farms
As large pieces of real estate suitable for solar panel arrays become scarce in certain smaller countries and densely populated areas, a small number of new installations are shifting to floating systems.  In the Netherlands, for example, an island comprised of a circle of 180 floating solar panels called Proteus has a total installed capacity of 73 kilowatts of peak power.  Proteus was built by SolarisFloat, a Portuguese company.  Similar floating farms are in Brazil, Japan and Singapore.  Global floating solar capacity reached 1,300-megawatt peak power in 2020, up from 70-megawatt peak power in 2015.  Long-term, significant demand for floating solar systems could develop.

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