Feature

From solar cells to power stations — a natural transition?


Nicholas Zeman

Construction at the world’s largest solar plant could symbolise a shift from panel and cell manufacturing to providing downstream electricity. Nicholas Zeman reports.

This article excerpt is taken from the newly released November/December issue of Renewable Energy Focus magazine. To register to receive a digital copy click here.

Manufacturing of solar cells and panels has reduced in the United States, but some firms have found success by shifting their focus onto building utility scale power plants. Indeed, the shift has provided the landscape and scope for the construction of the world’s largest utility scale power plant in California’s hot, dry Antelope Valley outside Los Angeles. The power plant is owned by investment firm Berkshire Hathaway’s MidAmerican Renewables and is being built by Sun­Power, San Jose, California.
 
In fact, dozens of projects from 10 MW to nearly 600 MW are dotting this immense basin between the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains. The development represents a trend throughout the entire United States, as more man­ufacturing operations go “under water” (where production and operational costs have exceeded revenues) and ambi­tious plans for new ones get cancelled (i.e. First Solar has vacated a $300 million panel plant in Mesa, Arizona, and GE recently scrapped plans for a Colorado facility.)The sky’s the limit: In recent times PV at Utility scale has been the order of the day for many PV project developers.
 
M+W Group, the Germany-based construction firm that built First Solar’s Mesa facility, told Renew­able Energy Focus magazine that solar remains a major business driver. However, the company has reca­librated its motions away from upstream manufacturing facilities to downstream utility scale power plants. This is primarily because of a capac­ity glut.
 
“The Chinese invested so heav­ily in solar manufacturing capac­ity that it drove a lot of players out of business,” said James Ellington, M+W U.S. executive vice president for advanced technology infrastruc­ture. “The incentives and demand for utility-scale power plants are much stronger at the moment than the need for increased manufacturing capacity of cells and panels.”
 
Building utility scale power plants has added some sense of matu­rity to the industry, and SunPow­er’s share price is up 27 per cent on the year as activity in Antelope Valley has been ramped up. MidAmeri­can Solar and SunPower have begun major construction at the Solar Star Power plants, co-located and totalling 579MW of (AC) generation capacity. Berkshire Hathaway bought the proj­ects earlier this year for in excess of US$2 billion.
 
As utility scale construction takes hold more and more, companies like SunPower are increasingly placing the emphasis on engineer, procure, con­struct (EPC) services.
 
But with this focus comes addi­tional pressures. Environmental con­cerns are key for example. So how does this manifest itself to a company that wants to build at utility scale? And what more needs to be done?
 
“These sites consist of several square miles, they’re vast and build­ers must provide minimal disturbance to the land,” SunPower president and CEOTom Werner told Renewable Energy Focus. “One of the things we do to mitigate environmental impacts is to plant grasses between the rows of the system. We changed fencing for the pit fox, for instance, so that it can go in and out. In fact, we’ve had to address the needs of two endan­gered species, as well as mitigate dust issues.”
 
As it closes in on completing the world’s largest solar power plant, Werner speculates the future is in selling power not panels.
 
“The industry hasn’t focused enough on EPC, and the task of con­verting these solar cells into 20 year to 30 year power stations," Werner stated. "Companies doing this more are being rewarded with more growth and more share­holder value.”
 
For the rest of the article, subscribe to Renewable Energy Focus magazine 

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This article is featured in:
Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity

 

Comments

ANUMAKONDA JAGADEESH said

23 December 2013
Excellent article on Solar Power.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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