Utility Scale Photovoltaics in California
The California Energy Crisis of 2000-2001 made legislators and the rest of state community rethink their views about energy independence, climate change and overall economic growth. Such needs made people shift their attention towards harnessing renewable energy sources and the viability of tapping into the state’s most abundant natural resource – solar power.
The state made aggressive moves towards addressing these needs, particularly with the passing of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and the Million Solar Roofs Bill (SB1). These policies complemented the California Solar Initiative spearheaded by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), aimed at building a million solar roofs within a 10-year period that is capable of generating up to 3,000 megawatts of solar electricity. This will help establish utility scale photovoltaics as mainstream energy resources for the state in the next decade to come.
California currently have more than 25,000 solar-powered homes and businesses, but all these account to only 100 MW solar energy capacity – a small percentage of the state’s current energy requirements. These state bills however are some of the most aggressive, most ambitious and most innovative renewable energy programs in the country that aims to multiply the state’s solar energy capacity by 30 times as much. This also marks the first time a whole state backs a single initiative towards making an alternative energy resource affordable and available in the mainstream consumer market.
Growth Drivers
California’s utility scale photovoltaics and global warming initiatives aims to cut down the cost of solar energy generation by half and make it affordable and available to its citizens. Such need is driven by the statewide desire to increase energy stability and independence while addressing other related needs such as reducing the impact of carbon emissions, lowering electricity bills and creating jobs for the people.
The international photovoltaic industry also has its sights on the United States utility-scale PV market and recognizes it as the main driver for the growing global demand. In a report from GTM Research, the utility-scale PV market in the US will grow from last year’s $1 billion level and up to $8 billion by the year 2015. California will play a significant role in driving this growth not only due to the enforcement of the state’s renewable energy mandates but also due to the falling prices of photovoltaic modules by up to 50%.
This decrease in photovoltaic prices was triggered by the reduction of natural gas prices during the last couple of years. This forced PV manufacturers to lower their costs and make solar-farm generated electricity more competitive than fossil fuel-fired plants.
Latest Trends
California’s three biggest investor-owned utilities practically hold 78 percent of the country’s 5,400 megawatt solar energy projects, making the state the biggest market for utility scale photovoltaics in the country. Some of these projects include:
  • A $450 million utility scale photovoltaic project in California by New Jersey-based NRG Energy. This is on top of the previously pledged $750 million solar plant projects initiated during the past couple of months.
  • California Edison (SCE) is working with independent power producers and has already granted 36 contracts to produce additional photovoltaic capacity of up to 60 megawatts. The solar panels will be installed in at least 31 rooftops and 5 ground-mounted locations.
  • Southern California Edison (SCE) has partnered with SunPower in building three photovoltaic plants that will have a capacity of generating up to 711 megawatts of solar energy. The first site will be located in Los Banos and will go online by 2014, while the other two will be set in Rosamond and are expected completion by the year 2016.
  • First Solar has also signed a power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison (SCE) for a 250-megawatt solar energy Silver State South project. The project aims to interconnect the SCE’s El Dorado-Ivanpah 220-kilovolt transmission line to First Solar’s ground-mounted solar panels in Primm, Nev. The project is expected to go online by 2014 and will be fully operational by 2017.
Issues and Challenges
The promise of utility scale photovoltaics use in California did not materialize without any issues or challenges. Last year, the initiative met its biggest hurdle with Proposition 23, aimed at suspending the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act until unemployment rates in the state drops to 5.5 percent levels or lower for at least four consecutive quarters.
Proposition 23 met its defeat however during the November 2, 2010 ballot in California, with 5,974,769 or 61.6% voting No to the proposition, while 3,733,948 or 38.4% voting aye. This is an indication of California’s larger public support for a cleaner and renewable energy for their future – which they will realize with full utility-scale solar energy use.