Massive solar photovoltaic plants are California-bound

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric is working with OptiSolar and SunPower to add 800 megawatts of photovoltaic solar farms to the grid.

SAN FRANCISCO--Pacific Gas & Electric has inked deals with OptiSolar and SunPower to establish 800 megawatts of solar farms in California, which could become the world's largest set of grid-tied photovoltaic installations.

The new plants would provide 1.65 billion kilowatt hours each year, enough to serve nearly 250,000 homes, according to Jack Keenan, CEO and senior vice president of PG&E.

"This commitment not only moves us forward in meeting our renewable goal, it's also a significant step forward in the renewable energy sector," he said. " Utility-scale deployment of PV (photovoltaic) technology may well become cost competitive with other forms of renewable energy generation, such as solar thermal and wind."

The deals would bring the utility's renewable energy commitment to 24 percent of its portfolio. California demands that PG&E provide 20 percent of electricity from renewables by 2010. Solar power also provides the benefit of serving electricity during crucial peak-demand afternoon hours, potentially helping to reduce strain on the grid, Keenan added.

Click on the image to view a photo gallery of different utility-scale solar technologies. Schott

OptiSolar's 550 megawatts are set to come online fully in 2013, and SunPower's 250 megawatts should be running by 2012, both in central San Luis Obispo County. Unlike these photovoltaic projects, most large-scale solar farms feature solar thermal systems.

The utility would rely on existing transmission lines rather than building them from scratch to deliver electricity to customers from the solar ranches in central California, according to PG&E.

OptiSolar's 550 megawatts would offset the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 90,000 cars from the road, according to the thin-film photovoltaic equipment maker. It filed in July for a conditional use permit to build near San Luis Obispo, and it aims to begin construction in 2010.

"The Topaz solar farm will grow clean electricity on previously disturbed, unused farmland with low-profile panels minimizing visual impact," said Randy Goldstein, CEO of OptiSolar. "It's designed to be compatible with key wildlife species and avoid environmentally sensitive areas ."

OptiSolar is also building a factory in Sacramento, planning to offer 1,000 green-collar jobs. Four-hundred people work at its current factory in Hayward, Calif.

In May the company revealed plans to establish 550 solar megawatts 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

"We are now here, with technology available now, that will allow solar to take its place among central station power plants with wind, geothermal, gas, and coal," said Tom Werner, CEO of SunPower.

He said the company has installed 350 megawatts of solar equipment on 450 sites on three continents. That includes the first utility-scale photovoltaic plant in Bavaria, Germany, in 2004 and the largest U.S. solar installation, 14 megawatts at Nellis Air Force Base in Arizona . SunPower is also developing rooftop solar panels for major retailers including Wal-Mart, JC Penney, and Macy's.

"What you are seeing here is the foundation of an industry that can deliver electricity cleanly, cheaply, and reliably than the fossil fuel alternatives," said Adam Browning, executive of the Vote Solar Initiative.

"That's really good news because the Department of Energy predicts we will need 386 gigawatts by 2015 just to keep up with load growth...This is a very large, great leap forward in economies of scale. This is the wave of the future."

But Browning, along with representatives of PG&E, and the solar companies, warned that advancement in solar power will wither if Congress fails to extend renewable energy tax credits past their expiration at the end of 2008.

 

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