Thursday, April 25, 2013

California’s dream to be the Saudi Arabia of solar dries up in the desert

Three years ago California regulators in quick succession approved nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants. They were to be built in the desert and would generate 4,142 megawatts (MW) of carbon-free electricity. The state, it was said, was on its way to becoming the Saudi Arabia of solar. Not any more. Today, the developers of four of those projects have since gone bankrupt and only three solar thermal power plants are under currently under construction. In recent weeks, BrightSource Energy put on hold two new solar thermal power plants that would have generated an additional 1,000 MW. (Its 370 MW Ivanpah project, however, is set to go online this year.)  And last week, the builder of what would be the world’s largest solar station at 1,000 MW—at peak output that’s equivalent to a big nuclear power plant—downsized the project to 485 MW. For risk-averse bankers, tried-and-true solar panels seemed a better bet than solar thermal. Even with a $2.1 billion loan guarantee from the US government, Germany’s Solar Millennium could not find bankers willing to put up the billions needed to build its 1,500 MW of solar thermal projects in California. It eventually filed for bankruptcy.  Tessera Solar met the same fate after bankers balked at financing $4.6 billion to install 54,900 solar dishes—each 40 feet (12 meters) high—on 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of government-owned desert land. Utility regulators also have begun to resist approving the high-priced power-purchase agreements for solar thermal projects. No surprise, then, that the developers of four of the solar thermal projects approved in 2010 have since switched to photovoltaic technology for their power plants...more

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