When people think of solar power, they tend to think of panels on rooftops.

When people think of solar power, they tend to think of panels on rooftops.

  • Posted: May 14, 2016
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When people think of solar power, they tend to think of panels on rooftops. That kind of small-scale, distributed solar power is the most visible gets the most press, and, from the consumer perspective has the most sex appeal But the humble workhorse of solar power is the utility-scale solar power plant, usually defined as a solar array larger than 5 megawatts. Solar power plants can consist in either photovoltaic (PV) panels or mirrors that focus sunlight on a fluid that boils and turns a turbine (“concentrating solar power,” or CSP). In practice, most new solar plants these days use PV, which has gotten so cheap so fast that it’s out competed CSP and every other solar segment, at least for now. In 2007, there were zero utility-scale solar power plants in the US. Today there are hundreds, ranging from the 579 MW Solar Star project (the world’s largest solar farm) in California down to dozens upon dozens of 10, 20, and 50 MW projects in communities across the country. (SEIA counts 2,100 solar PV projects over 1 MW.) Big solar power plants still provide a measly 0.6 percent of overall US electricity. But they are headed up a steep growth curve. Residential rooftop solar is the fastest growing solar segment, but utility-scale solar is bigger. There’s more installed, so even with its slower growth rate it adds more capacity each year — in 2015, it accounted for 57 percent of all new installed solar capacity. (“Non-residential” in this graph refers to rooftop solar on commercial buildings — parking garages, big-box stores, etc.) What’s more, there’s a ton of utility solar in the pipeline. According to the Energy Information Administration, 9.5 GW of utility solar is scheduled for installation in 2016 — more than from any other single energy source, including natural gas. That would make 2016 a banner year, with utility solar accounting for more than three-quarters of installed solar capacity, installing more in a year than in the past three combined. That’s serious growth. A new report from GTM Research is also optimistic about utility-scale solar passing something of a milestone in 2016. For years, the growth of big solar was driven by state-level renewable energy mandates; utilities had to build these plants. This coming year, GTM expects more than half the growth in big solar to come outside those mandates…

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