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After years of fits and starts, utility-scale solar-generated power is finally poised to emerge from the shadows, propelled by a combination of technology breakthroughs, state renewable energy mandates and lucrative federal and state grants and tax incentives, according to many industry observers. This year promises to be a breakthrough one for solar generation, with a number of large projects coming on line.
"Solar generation is growing a lot," said Dennis McGinn, president and chief executive of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). "It is now one of the most rapidly growing parts of the nation's renewable energy portfolio. The price is coming down, and there is a lot more confidence within the investor community based on solar's performance. The cost of (investment) capital is now more competitive."
A number of significant utility-scale photovoltaic and concentrating solar power (CSP) projects are generating significant amounts of power this year, promising to catapult solar generation into the mainstream. These include Arizona's Agua Caliente (280 megawatt) and Solana (250 megawatt) solar projects, Nevada's Crescent Dunes (110 megawatt) generating station and California's three-unit Ivanpah (400 megawatt) project, which will utilize 170,000 mirrors to generate electricity.
"The next three years are going to be very active," said Mike Taylor, director of research for the Solar Electric Power Association. "We are seeing a lot of projects being put in place."
Many of these utility-scale solar projects are located in the western desert regions and often involve large-scale projects and important technology breakthroughs. As an example, the $2.2 billion Ivanpah project, being built by BrightSource Energy on 3,300 acres of California desert land near the Nevada border, will eventually utilize more than 170,000 mirrors to reflect the sun's power into boilers located in three different 400-foot towers, heating water to produce steam to drive turbines. The plant is expected to produce about 400 megawatts by the end of this year. Such a design has never operated on such a large scale, but the project has attracted well-known investors such as Google and NRG Energy.