Intelligent Energy

Siemens rides international alpine solar wave

Siemens rides international alpine solar wave

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In France, not all power is nuclear, or even French. Germany's Siemens, which recently bid adieu to atoms, builds an undulating French-Japanese PV plant in the Alps, with panels from China.

In France, not all power is nuclear, or even French. Germany’s Siemens, which bid adieu to atoms recently, builds an undulating French-Japanese PV plant in the Alps, with panels from China.

German industrial conglomerate Siemens is putting the finishing touches on a utility scale solar plant in the French Alps, built to undulate with the contours of the half-mile high terrain.

When completed early next month, the sprawling plant will provide 31 megawatts of power to energy operator Eco Delta Développment, which will sell electricity for 12,000 homes to French utility EDF.

Eco Delta has a 50.1 percent stake in the plant in Les Mées, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. It operates and co-owns it with Japan’s Sumitomo Corp. (49.9 percent) through a joint company called Lavansol 1.

At 31 megawatts, the plant is a medium-sized solar utility installation by world standards, but stands out because nuclear dominates France’s power grid, providing 75 percent of the country’s electricity. Les Mées is believed to be France’s largest solar facility. Siemens is stepping up its own involvement in renewable energy like solar and wind, especially now that it has exited the nuclear business.

Lavansol 1 is also notable for the type of solar technology it chose: It asked Siemens for photovoltaics, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, rather than solar thermal, in which the sun heats a liquid into steam that drives a turbine.

A rapid decline in PV prices – triggered in part by low-cost Chinese production - has prompted some utility projects to veer away from solar thermal and toward photovoltaics recently, notably the Blythe project in California. The Les Mées plant uses solar panels from China’s Suntech Power.

Eco Delta chairman Ronald Knoche told SmartPlanet that the company selected PV because there is not enough “solar irradiation” at the site to justify solar thermal – even though the area has copious amounts of year-round sunshine.

Knoche also cited aesthetic and environmental reasons for choosing the lower profile PV over solar thermal at the site, which sits 2,600 feet above the Durance River in southeastern France. “PV has a very low impact,” he said, whereas thermal “could be seen from a very large distance.”

Siemens has architected the structures to roll with the wavey landscape.

Like any bit of development or power installation large or small, green or sooty, it won’t be completely without ecological impact: It will use 4,000 tons of materials according to Siemens. That’s about half the weight of the Eiffel Tower, or somewhere around18 Airbus A380s.

Siemens has built 5 of the 6 plants that together comprise 31 megawatts. It started construction in January, and plans to finish the last segment by early next month, according to an Eco Delta spokeswoman.

When complete 112,000 panels will stretch across 66 hectares – the size of 92 soccer fields.

Photos: Siemens, via Kaleazy.com

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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