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California utility plows ahead with midsize solar

Pacific Gas & Electric gets green light to build midsize solar arrays between 1 and 20 megawatts, an approach meant to avoid the problems with large-scale solar.

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric got approval for an initiative that seeks to ramp up solar-power production but sidestep the permitting hurdles of large-scale solar and the expense of rooftop panels.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved a five-year program where PG&E will install solar photovoltaic arrays between 1 megawatt and 20 megawatts in size. In all, the installations will have a capacity of 500 megawatts worth of solar, enough to power 150,000 homes, according to PG&E.

Amonix concentrating photovoltaic arrays are designed for utilities and distributed power generation. Amonix

The approach is to build midsize solar arrays and locate them near power substations, which means that no new transmissions lines will need to be built. Constructing smaller, distributed units also simplifies the environmental permitting process, another serious hurdle to building power plant-size solar projects.

"Smaller scale projects can avoid many of the pitfalls that have plagued larger renewable projects in California, including permitting and transmission challenges," CPUC president Michael Peevey said in a statement.

California has a renewable portfolio standard where utilities need to get 20 percent of their electricity by the end of this year. PG&E will own and operate about half of the installations and purchase power from independent developers, it said.

The technology used for these projects will be familiar solar photovoltaic panels, but the program could also see the use of concentrating photovoltaic arrays, where mirrors concentrate light to draw more electricity from high-end solar cells. Amonix, a company in that field, raised $129 million earlier this week to pursue the utility business.