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Are We At A Solar Tipping Point?

By Bill Moore

Abu Dhabi's Shams1 CSP plant just went online, producing 1 MW of electric power with [almost] zero carbon emissions, while in Lincoln, Nebraska a far smaller system also connected to the grid. Both are linked by a common imperative.

You know we've reached a tipping point when the Arab Emirate of Abu Dhabi throws the switch that turns on the world's largest concentrating solar power plant, while half a world away Lincoln, Nebraska's newest Nissan LEAF owner begins charging his electric car through the new solar photovoltaic array on the roof of his lakeside home.

Ironically, even though they are thousands of miles apart and represent entirely different cultures, they share this commonality: both aim to reduce their dependence on petroleum. In Abu Dhabi's case, the aim is to substitute solar energy to power its internal economy in place of the oil and gas it can sell for more money on the world market.

But regardless of their reasons, both events are examples of the shift taking place around the planet as renewable energy begins to come into its own. Here are some of the milestones of 2012, according to Bloomberg News and others:

And 2013 promise a similar track, despite an ongoing consolidation in an industry with 70 GW of module production capacity and a current global demand of just over 30 GW.

According to Recurrent Energy, a unit of Sharp Corp., Solar power will be the second- biggest source of generating capacity added to the U.S. electric grid in 2013.

Over on the Persian Gulf, the Shams 1 concentrating solar power (CSP) plant uses 258,000 curved mirrors that focus sunlight to heat oil-filled pipes to 400 degrees C (752F), which then vaporizes water into steam. This steam is then superheated by either gas or oil-fueled booster heater to improve the efficiency of the electric power turbines, and as backup on cloudy and low solar insolation days. The $600 million plant is co-owned by Masdar Corporation (60%), the folks building the new, sustainable city of the same name, along with Spanish energy company Abengoa ( 20%) and France's TOTAL (20%). Occupying an area of desert 2.5 km square, it can produce a enough electricity to power 20,000 homes.

Back here in Nebraska, the fact that some guy installed a PV system on his roof might not seem all that significant, but for me personally, it is. You see that LEAF owner and now PV-power producer is a long-time friend of mine who co-founded Information Analytics, an Internet hosting and IT company right around the same time I started building commercial web sites in 1993, including Ameritrade’s first site. And for a decade, IA hosted a string of web sites I created from Macware.com to Maryrose.org. In 1998, their server in Lincoln was the launch pad for EV World. So, I have a special fondness for Mark.

Whether it's a natural gas-rich Arab Emirate or an IT guy in the conservative heartland of America, solar, in its various guises be it PV or CSP, is becoming mainstream and in a hurry. In fact, there are now regions of the world where it is now competitive with what has been, until now, the cheapest form of electric power generation: coal, which finds its market share shrinking dramatically as more utilities convert to natural gas.

Case in point, the City of Los Angeles announced that it will stop buying all coal-fired electric power by 2025. El Paso Electric Co. agreed to buy solar PV-generated power from First Solar's Macho Springs 50MW project for 5.79¢/kWh. That is, according to Bloomberg, less than half what it would have cost to buy it from a new coal-fired power plant. Think Progress, however, does note that without New Mexico's state production tax credit and the 30 percent federal investment tax credit, the unsubsidized cost would be around 8¢/kWh, still well below the 12.8¢ projected for new coal-generated power.

While industry consolidation - exemplified by China's largest PV maker declaring bankruptcy - could slow the drop in panel prices, it also has been pointed out that is may, in fact, help spur the introduction of more innovation, continuing the steady downward slide in PV prices, especially for commercial installations which are in the $2.50 per watt range today, with some seeing $1.50/watt in the foreseeable future.

Maybe around that time, even I'll be able to afford following Mark's example, powering our home and our plug-in Prius with sunlight instead of Wyoming coal.

Times Article Viewed: 4630
Originally published: 25 Mar 2013

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