The Biggest Solar Project in the World

It’s just outside Phoenix. No, it’s in the Mojave. Wait, no, it’s in San Benito County.

A solar-thermal array uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight. (Image: BrightSource Energy)

On a media call this week in which executives and investors from the solar industry stumped for extensions to key federal incentives, I heard Fred Morse of Abengoa Solar say that the company’s Solana project in Gila Bend, Arizona, will be, as described on the project website, “the world’s largest solar plant.” Later that same day, an email came in from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, (not in response) touting its Ivanpah project as “the largest solar project in the world.” Similar terms have been used to describe Solargen’s proposed 4,700-acre photovoltaic array in San Benito County.

The power generation business has entered a new age of superlatives.

There are various ways of measuring size. The physical footprint of the plant could be one but usually such projects are ranked by their planned power capacity, in megawatts. BrightSource says Ivanpah will be about 400 MW. Peterson says that if Solargen isn’t forced to downsize the Panoche array to get it permitted, it would clock in at 420 MW (to put this in perspective, the twin reactors at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant are rated at more than 1,000 MW–each).

Part of the confusion may lie in the different technologies. Utility-scale solar projects can be either PV or “solar-thermal” arrays. The latter uses focused sunlight to make steam and requires fewer panels for the same output.

According to BrightSource CEO John Woolard, size matters. Woolard estimates that in order to stabilize atmospheric carbon at 450 parts per million (we’re at 392 and counting) by 2050, “Every day we have to build the equivalent – somewhere in this world – of a nuclear power-plant’s-worth of output of carbon-free energy. It’ll be a combination of wind, solar, some nuclear, maybe we’ll figure out carbon sequestration, but 1 gigawatt per day.”

In any case, new projects are being slated at such a pace that the answer to which is the biggest may be: “What day is it?”

It looks pretty big but PG&E's Vaca-Dixon PV array generates just 2 MW--and that's the strategy. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Meanwhile, some developers are taking the opposite tack. Last month, PG&E threw the ceremonial switch on its Vaca-Dixon solar array, just off I-80, west of Davis. It’s an example of what you might call “solar infill.” Built on 16,000 acres surrounded by farmland, the photovoltaic (PV) array generates just two megawatts of power for the grid. Eventually, though, the utility plans to build out enough PV patches to produce 500 MW (enough to power about 150,000 average homes in California); half on its own and half from contractors. All the arrays, however, will be two megawatts or less.

In the video clip below, PG&E President Chris Johns talks about the company’s newest solar mini-farm.

By the way, Terra-Gen Power announced this week that after lining up more than a billion dollars in financing, it will break ground next week on a 3,000-megawatt wind farm in Kern County. Once all five phases of the Alta Wind Energy Center are built, it would be, according to Terra-Gen, “the largest wind power project in the world”…of course.

The Biggest Solar Project in the World 23 July,2010Craig Miller

3 thoughts on “The Biggest Solar Project in the World”

  1. Good, Wind, waves and solar should be at the forefront of our phazing out of fossil fuels.

    Belos is the URL of the most beautiful and informative video of the 21 century. Please share it. It is in various languages.

    It however fails to mention that in 20 years we will have2 billion more humans, and all the energy changes we might come up will do nothing to the complete devastation our planet will succumb due to the exponential popuation problem.

  2. What everyone seduced by the idea of solar is forgetting, unless distributed power is allowed to grow in the U.S., these large energy companies will continue to control energy production in the U.S.

    Solargen is a perfect example. It was started by ethanol and oil industry veterans with no experience in solar but they do have a history of profiting from huge government subsidies.

    Solargen wants to build on 5,000 acres of Prime Agricultural land with Class 1 soil in an open-space grassland that is home to a suite of Endangered and Threatened animals. It would put 20 family-owned farms and ranches, who’s focus is on grazing in harmony with the wildlife and natural habitat, out of business and the over 100 employees they employ out of work. It will also ruin the eco-tourism and agri-tourism trade florishing in the valley.

    Increasing foreign food dependence by deveoping valuable fertile agricultural land is not the way to move away from foreign fossil fuel dependence. And decimating two resources, (agricultural and biological) in lieu of another doesn’t make economic sense.

    Instead of $360 million of our tax dollars going to the likes of Solargen, that money should be spent on subsidies to put solar on every roof, in every industrial space surrounding urban areas, along freeways, etc. before one cent goes to developing open-space wildlife and agricultural areas.

    Solargen has the option to develop 30,000 acres of retired agriculture land, (retired due to selinium and salt buildup from lack of irrigation drainage)in the Westlands Water District of Fresno County but they choose not to because land is more expensive. They tout themselves as developers of environmentally friendly solar projects. The fact they’ve never developed a single solar project before is your first clue they may not be telling the truth. The fact they want to develop a pristine open-space area with more sensitive species than you can shake a stick at rather than an area devoid of wildlife such as Westland’s is your next clue that this company doesn’t give a damn about the environment. It’s all about making a buck off the taxpayer and I for one don’t buy it for a second.

    Utility-scale solar = a bane to future generations.

  3. PG&E President Chris Johns says that PG&E looks to generate up to 500MW worth of energy from photo voltaic solar installations, half of that would be produced by PG&E and up to 250MW by independent producers. Chris Johns further says that PG&E is looking for “infill” projects around 2 MW and up to 10 or 20 MW.
    This makes sense in that PG&E transmission infrastructure will take years to upgrade if larger projects were to come online in remote locations.
    Yet Solargen’s Environmental Impact Report claims that the Panoche Valley project will produce 420MW by 2016, that PG&E will purchase that energy, and that existing infrastructure suffices to transmit the energy… if you buy that, there is a bridge I can sell you in Brooklyn.
    I hope the people who hand stimulus money pay attention and do their due diligence before handing $360,000,000 to Solargen so that a group of entrepreneurs with no experience in solar energy (but with a consistent history of failure in the renewable energy field) can build a project in the lovely Panoche Valley. Most likely, just like other Michael Peterson Peterson/Eric McAfee enterprises, this project would end up idly gather dust as technology races past it and as economically viable projects are sited near electric infrastructure that has the capacity to transmit.

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Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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