World’s largest thermal solar plant opens in California

US government touts potential of solar as pricey new plant opens in California, but will have to compete with wind and gas


By John McGarrity

The world’s largest thermal solar power plant started producing power this week, but long-term growth in the sector will depend on subsidies and lower technology costs to compete with wind and domestic reserves of cheap shale gas.

US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz today will open the $2.2 billion concentrated solar power plant in the Mojave Desert in California, a technology that some hope will reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in a burgeoning domestic solar power industry.

“The Ivanpah project is a shining example of how America is becoming a world leader in solar energy,” said Moniz, pointing to recent comments from President Obama on the potential of solar in last month’s State of the Union address.

The solar project, which is part-funded by tech giant Google, will have a capacity of almost 400MW, supplying almost 100,000 homes.

The plant will generate electricity through 350,000 mirrors that focus large amounts of sunlight onto masts and drive powerful steam turbines.

But the technology is considerably more expensive than traditional solar photovoltaic projects and could be subject to a tricky permitting process in some states as concerns have grown about the environmental impact of large solar plants.

Solar power currently accounts for less than 1% of US power output , but may require a sharp fall in technology costs, subsidies and additional incentives to grow beyond the EIA’s estimate for 2030 that using the sun will account for just 2% of generating capacity.

In its ‘reference case’ scenario, the US Energy Information Agency forecasts the US will almost double its solar capacity from 14 GW in 2013 to 27 GW in 2030, with many of the new projects expected in sun-drenched southwestern states.

That forecast figure would compare unfavourably with Germany’s current solar capacity of 35GW, which can meet half of the country’s energy demand during the sunniest times of the day.

But some US states are trying to give greater encouragement to technologies such as solar though the use of targets and subsidies.

Also increased regulation of fossil fuels and higher carbon prices in the parts of the US covered by emissions trading could mean a higher share of renewables in the country’s energy mix than the EIA suggests.

California, which is home to the biggest share of US solar projects, has mandated that a third of its electricity generation much come from renewables by the end of the decade.

Cheap gas

Earlier this week state regulators said the energy sector would need to speed up the move to low carbon energy if the state is to meet ambitious 2050 carbon reduction targets.

Wind power is expected to be more competitive with solar until well into the next decade, and the growth in solar in the US as a whole is likely to be far less than that expected for gas.

The fossil fuel is expected to increase its share of the US energy mix to 41% by 2030 from almost 35% in 2013, according to the EIA’s reference scenario.

Cheap domestic supplies extracted through fracking of shale deposits, and government regulation are already persuading utilities to ditch dirtier coal, a move the US hopes will help it meet a future 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target.

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