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Shock technology shift at huge California solar plant

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Photovoltaics boot out solar thermal power at the 1GW Blythe project in California. German backer cites plunge in PV panel prices as the reason.

Solar Millennium AG announced late last week that it is forsaking its trademark deployment of solar thermal technology in favor of photovoltaic panels at the 1GW Blythe Solar Power Project in California.

The decision underscores the rapid price decline in solar PV panels.

Erlangen, Germany-based Solar Millennium develops, builds and operates solar power plants. It specializes in solar thermal electricity generation – using the sun to heat a fluid that creates steam to drive a turbine.

It had planned to use solar thermal –also known as concentrated solar power (CSP) - at Blythe, using parabolic mirrors (pictured above) to focus the sun’s rays on the heating fluid. But it disclosed last week that its U.S. subsidiary, Solar Trust of America, will instead use solar PV panels for the first 500MW that it builds.

“At the moment, the U.S. market is clearly focused on peak load supply,” Solar Millennium CEO Christoph Wolff said in a press release. “Due to the drastic drop in PV prices, we agreed with the Californian utility to convert the power purchase agreements to PV. The simultaneous sudden price increases for raw materials and construction would have reduced our return on equity and risk provisioning for our construction share in the Blythe CSP project to marginal values.”

Wolff said that the company remains generally committed to solar thermal. "Our long-term strategy remains unchanged,” he said. “We see solid demand for CSP in the world's growth markets such as Africa, the Middle East, India and China. This is also true for Southern Europe where we have just achieved financial close on our fourth CSP plant in Spain.”

He explained that CSP suits areas of the world that want solar power for base load electricity, in contrast to what he said is the peak load emphasis in the U.S.

“According to our understanding, the market differentiates between base load solar-thermal electricity generation or concentrated solar power on the one hand and photovoltaics for peak load demand on the other,” he said.

“Whereas the electricity from solar-thermal power plants was more economic only less than two years ago, this relation has changed completely due to the sharp drop in PV module prices, particularly from Asia. Due to its suitability for base load supply, many regions still attach great value to CSP in their energy mix, thus supporting the Solar Millennium Group’s growth opportunities.”

Last month, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that investments in CSP led a resurgence in global renewables investing, including at a California CSP plant separate from Solar Millennium's. The German company's switch to PV might suggest that such CSP investing in California could be under threat as PV prices come down.

The fall in PV prices is probably a factor in the 166% growth in U.S. PV installations forecasted last week by IHS iSuppli for 2011. IHS and Ernst & Young have separately predicted that prices will plummet to $1.00 per watts- by 2012 in the case of IHS, and 2013 for E&Y.

According to the Solar Millennium release, the company will now give up a loan guarantee provided by the U.S. Department of Energy earlier this month and will instead finance the project on the free capital market, where it described lending conditions for PV as “favorable” in the U.S.

When completed, Blythe could be the world's largest solar electricity plant. At 1GW, it would equal the capacity of a typical nuclear power station.

Photo: Solar Millennium AG

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure