The $2.2 billion Ivanpah power station, jointly-owned by NRG Energy, Inc.,
BrightSource Energy, Inc. and Google, produced it first output of electricity on
September 24, 2013. Employing concentrating solar power (CSP) technology, the
power plant uses 153, 500 giant mirrors to focus sunlight giant mirrors to reflect and
concentrate into three 45-story towers. The sun rays are converted into heat or thermal energy that boils water. This powers a turbine or heat engine to generate electricity.
Although optional, one of the primary advantages of CSP over PV power stations relates to its capability to store power and distribute electricity on cloudy days or at night. There is one issue, however. CSP power storage is very costly and the Ivanpah does not have this capability.
The 392-megawatt plant sits across 3,500 acres of public land about 45 miles south of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert. When operating at full capacity, Ivanpah developers expect the CSP station to power 140,000 California homes. The project, which began in October 2010, is the largest of its kind. And, many experts predict that it will probably be the last such project.
Why? The rise of Solar PV for two primary reasons: (1) the falling prices of photovoltaic (PV) modules which directly convert sunlight into electricity, and (2) the modular and distributed nature of Solar PV.
Oversupply of PV Modules
Concentrated solar power projects receive a significant amount of funding from the $9
billion 2009 federal stimulus package. Some industry experts forecasted a rosy future
for CSP technologies, compared to PV solar. At that time, module prices per watt were
much higher and could not compete with the more cost efficient CSP or solar farms.
Over the past 36 months, PV technology has gain an edge because of a deluge of
inexpensive PV modules from China. The per watt price of solar panels plummeted 62%
to $0.71cents per watt. When construction started on the Ivanpah project, panels cost
$1.87 per watt.
This dramatic decrease in the cost of PV panels has shaken the industrial-solar vertical
at its foundation. Large PV solar power stations can generate electricity at costs up to
52 percent less than CSP power stations, reports Bloomberg Data. This cost disparity
has cause BrightSource to cancel two multi-billion CSP projects.
Distributed PV Solar to Gain
The chaos in the concentrated solar power segment has provided an opportunity in the distributed electricity generation. Unlike CSP, distributed solar systems generate energy close to the location where it is made—usually in the form of rooftop solar panels. In 2012, approximately 90,000 homes and businesses across the United States had these systems installed. This is about the equivalent of a single, large coal-fired plant and produces 1.5 gigawatts of power.
The final numbers are not in, but the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) estimates that the U.S. installed a total of roughly 4.3 GW of new PV in 2013–a 27 percent increase over the previous year.