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The End of Large-Scale Solar Projects in the U.S.?

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Installing First Solar panels in Blythe, CA | Photo: First Solar

First Solar, the Arizona-based thin film photovoltaic company best known for building large utility scale power plants in the California desert and the Carrizo Plain, may be easing its way out of the large-scale solar business. In an interview in an Australian trade journal, a high-ranking First Solar executive has suggested that the era of "massive" photovoltaic developments in North America may be coming to an end.

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First Solar spearheaded the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight solar facility in Riverside County and the 550-megawatt Topaz facility in eastern San Luis Obispo county, both now under construction. The firm is also behind the proposed 300-megawatt Stateline Solar farm in California's Ivanpah Valley, and the 450-megawatt Silver State North and South projects across the state line from Stateline in Nevada. The firm's 230-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One has been acquired by Exelon, and its 290-megawatt Agua Caliente project in Arizona is now under construction for NRG Energy and MidAmerican Renewables.

In short, First Solar is a major player in the large utility-scale PV world. But according to Jack Curtis, First Solar's Asia-Pacific Vice-President of Business Development and Sales, the company may be seeing the economic and logistical handwriting on the wall.

In an interview with the Australian renewable energy site Ecogeneration, Curtis says in no uncertain terms that future North American solar projects will likely be significantly smaller than facilities like Desert Sunlight.

Generally, you find better land availability where there's not as useful transmission availability. As a result, a lot of the plants that have been constructed in North America have been massive. I don't think you're going to see a lot of these going forward -- largely because it is difficult to find that optimum balance between land availability and transmission availability -- but more importantly you're really not leveraging the modularity of photovoltaic (PV) solar as much as you could.

Curtis goes on to explain the importance of modularity:

Solar PV essentially realises all economic economies of scales at about 20 megawatts (MW), so if it doesn't cost you any more on a unit basis to build 20 MW as opposed to 500 MW, then what you should be doing is leveraging more strategic places on the grid where you don't have those grid constraints, where it's easy to find a site, where it's closer to distribution load, or it's not as much of a pain to connect, or it doesn't have the same line loss impact.

The upshot, says Curtis, is that he expects solar facility developers to think significantly smaller:

We see the sweet spot in the 10-50 MW range predominantly, and then in some scenarios at 50-100 MW.

Building PV facilities that offer 10-50 megawatts of capacity still means fairly large projects; a 50-megawatts single-axis ground mounted project recently approved near Fresno will cover almost 350 acres of land. Still, projects of that size are far more likely to fit into urban and other developed settings, making it easier to move away from the long-distance transmission model of power generation.

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