California’s Sizzling Solar Busts Through 3 GW


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For the first time, California’s utility-scale solar power production has topped 3,000 megawatts (or, if you prefer, 3 gigawatts). The California Independent System Operator, which oversees the grid for much of the state, tweeted that solar generation hit a record 3,048 MW at 12:02 p.m. on Thursday.

To put 3,000 MW in perspective, the average coal-fired unit in the United States in 2011 could generate 228 MW of power, according to the Energy Information Administration – so at noon on Thursday, California’s solar farms were doing the work of about 13 such units.

What’s remarkable about the figure is that exactly one year earlier, on Jan. 2, 2013, the state had also set a record – 1,235 MW. That means that in a single year, peak utility-scale solar power production in California has risen nearly 150 percent.

What’s behind the increase?

Several big solar plants have been added in recent months in California – led by the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. The pace of growth doesn’t figure to slow much in the foreseeable future, either. Big as California Valley Solar Ranch is, it will soon be dwarfed by other California plants: the 550-megawatt Topaz project and the 579-megawatt Solar Star Projects (previously known as Antelope Valley Solar Projects), about an hour north of Los Angeles, are under construction now.

As for winter’s effect on solar, while the days are shorter (and sometimes cloudy), if it’s sunny, the big arrays – many of which come with tracking systems – work just fine. In fact, photovoltaics work more efficiently in cool, sunny weather than in hot, sunny weather. First Solar says that its thin-film modules lose 10 percent of their output at very high temperatures, while traditional crystalline silicon PV fares even worse, with output falling off by 20 percent.

One final point: We always need to point out that the California ISO solar production figures are for wholesale solar only. California also has nearly 2,000 MW of solar behind meters – on the roofs of businesses and homes all over the state – that isn’t included in that 3,048 MW figure.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 6, 2014, to add that MidAmerican’s Antelope Valley Solar Projects had been renamed Solar Star Projects.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Jerry Graf

    “so at noon on Thursday, California’s solar farms were doing the work of about 13 such units.”

    How much work were they doing at midnight on Thursday??

    http://jerrygraf.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/what-happened-to-5-36-giga-dollars-in-ca/

    $5,360,0000,0000 for just over 1050 MW (CVSR, Antelope 1, and Topaz) capable of producing not nearly enough electricity.

    Here’s a quote from the NY Times:

    “As NRG’s chief executive, David W. Crane, put it to Wall Street analysts early this year, the government’s largess was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and ‘we intend to do as much of this business as we can get our hands on.’ NRG, along with partners, ultimately secured $5.2 billion in federal loan guarantees plus hundreds of millions in other subsidies for four large solar projects” Eric Lipton & Clifford Krauss – NY Times

    I understand the need to protect the future of our environment for my children and grandchildren, but I will not ignore reality and stand-by while our economy is sacrificed on the altar of climate change theology; because this will do no good for my children and grandchildren either. There is a balance that needs to be struck. There is no doubt we in the USA need to alter our energy strategy. The question of how we will change it, however, must be determined by scientific evaluation of fact and logical cost vs benefit analysis of performance and economics.

    • jeffhre

      As NRG’s chief executive, David W. Crane, put it to Wall Street analysts early this year, the government’s largess was a once-in-a-generation opportunity…”

      It is easy to see that this is true. Promotion of PV with subsidies, such as this, have resulted in PV power reaching peak power grid parity on a levelized cost basis for the Southwest. And costs continue to drop rapidly. Since solar panels started at $76 per kilowatt in the 1970’s and recently reached .$74 per kilowatt, this is an investment opportunity for power generators using government loan guarantees that is quickly passing. And rather than a bid to destroy the economy, is a technological success story that will pay back the taxpayers for generations to come.

      • Jerry Graf

        California Valley Solar Ranch:
        250MW costing $1,600,000,000 is $6.40 per watt

        Antelope Valley Solar 1:
        250 MW costing $1,360,000,000 is $5.44 per watt

        Topaz Solar Farm:
        550MW costing $2,400,000,000 is $4.36 per watt

        Combined Totals for all three:
        1050 MW costing $5,360,000,000 is $5.10 per watt

        $5.36 BILLION for sources that operate at 22% capacity factor making a very questionable 2,000 GWh of on-and-off electricity per year. Seriously??!!
        ……..I’m out.

        • mdriftmeyer

          The cost to upgrade those panels is a fraction of the infrastructure cost. With 30+ panels hitting the streets with in 2014 that cost per watt drops dramatically. Solar interfaces will continue to drop as efficiencies scale, meaning a growing Return on investment. Nothing traditional Oil, Gas or Coal can ever do.

          Then again as a Mechanical Engineer I know the theoretical/practical thermo capacities of these cycles which at their peak cannot compete with Solar or Wind.

  • suntortise

    Incredible the trolls that dog all the articles about climate or renewable energy. And they never disclose the over funded disparagers of climate science or renewable energy such as the Koch Brothers, Big Oil etc.
    A solar installation would have to be pretty damn expensive compared to fossil to make up for the obvious fact that it runs on free fuel, even if only during daylight hours.
    Where will the fossil plants be when the fuel runs out, or the coastal population centers are under water?
    And if climate science is somehow wrong, shouldn’t we be trying a much as possible to live off incoming solar and save the stored fossil fuel for some imagined coming ice age?
    Why should we be fracking, raping mountaintops, building more Fuk-U-Shimas etc. , and generally trying to extract every last drop of fossil fuels on the off chance that climate deniers and fossil fools with an obvious greed driven agenda are right?
    What a tragedy.. we built a cleaner energy infrastructure and climate science was wrong! Darn!

    • Jerry Graf

      YES, the solar installations are that expensive. The $5.36 billion is a real number that the taxpayers are paying for, not the solar developers.

      • jeffhre

        Developers, rate payers, investors AND taxpayers.

        5.2 billion of these costs are in the form of loan guarantees, which are attached to privately funded loans, and which will be paid off through payments from ratepayers. Unless the project goes bankrupt, the costs to taxpayers are essentially administrative.

        What exactly do tax payers get for their portion? Nothing?

        • Pete D

          It’s a good point, jeffhre, except that in the end Topaz did not get a loan guarantee. That said, there are taxpayer costs to these projects, all of which I’m sure qualify for the ITC (either the credit itself or 1603 for those safe-harbored). That’s 30 percent of the cost out of the U.S. Treasury. Worth it, in my view, and fair in light of the vast assistance the public has given to fossil-fuel industries over the years, but it needs to be acknowledged. (I should add that I’m also not 100 percent sure of the cost figures being quoted here; as far as I can tell, many of them date back to when these projects were first being considered for the DOE loan program, three or more years ago, and the cost of solar has declined considerably since then. I would be interested to learn of more recent verification of the costs.)

      • disqus_l4zSoQqrpI

        The $480 billion in oil subsidies since 1909 is a real number too.

        • disqus_l4zSoQqrpI

          How about that ‘balance’ you want?

  • disqus_l4zSoQqrpI

    That’s because they are paid trolls. Their job is to try to hold the U.S. back on solar deployment and between them and the ALEC policies, they are doing just that. In Texas the same people that want deregulation of wallstreet and big oil have made laws requiring a master electrician certification to put panels on a house. Then big energy has the option of paying more to retain said electricians.