Intelligent Energy

The world's largest solar plant

The world's largest solar plant

Posting in Energy

With summer approaching its unofficial end, we shine light on big developments in the solar industry.

As summer approaches its unofficial end, and with the sun brightening up much of the Irene-hit northeastern U.S., now seems like a good time to reflect on the state of solar power.

In that spirit, can you spot the contradictions in the statements below, all taken from this summer’s press releases and web pages about solar power projects? Clue: Pay attention to the bold typeface.

August 18, from Solar Millenium, Erlangen, Germany: “Solar Millennium AG … today announced their plan to convert the first 500 MW phase of the Blythe Solar Power Project to photovoltaic (PV) technology. When complete, the Blythe Project will be 1,000 MW in size and thus the largest solar facility in the world.”

August 15, from National Solar Power, Melbourne, Fla., regarding a 400-MW project: “National Solar Power today announced, after a deliberative, exhaustive and comprehensive search process, it has narrowed its list to four communities in Florida to become the home of the world’s largest solar farm."

August 8, First Solar, Tempe, Ariz, via the U.S. Department of Interior says its 500-MW plant in Riverside, California will be the “largest solar-photovoltaic facility on public lands.”

Currently, Brightsource, Oakland, Calif. notes on its website that its 392-MW solar thermal plant in Ivanpah, Calif. is “the largest solar plant under construction in the world.”

Get it? Everyone, it seems says they’re the biggest, whether they’re talking 400 MW or 1,000 MW!

Before I give my vote for the most gargantuan solar project in the world, let me come clean about a disingenuous twist above. First Solar qualifies its claim, noting that it would be the largest on public land, which is a tad less absolute than “largest in world.” In the Riverside project, the turf belongs to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

And to Brightsource’s credit, when they announced plans earlier this month for a 500-MW project in California’s Inyo County, they refrained from any “largest ever” speech, even though 500 MW would be bigger than the 392-MW plant that their website says is the “largest under construction.” (They’ve broken ground at Ivanpah, while Inyo Canyon awaits government approval).

So, will the real largest solar project please stand up?

The winner in my book is First Solar, but not its Riverside project.

Rather, I give the nod to its massive 2 gigawatt project in China, which when complete would be the size of two nuclear power stations. The project, in China’s Inner Mongolian desert, has suffered delays. First Solar first announced it in Sept. 2009, and construction has not yet begun. We’ll take a closer look at the state of play there in a subsequent post, but for today’s purposes, it wins the “would be the word’s biggest” prize.

Let’s not forget that none of these are yet up and running. But this “mine is bigger than yours” mania is at least a sign that solar is picking up, and that it could stat to contribute more than just a minute fraction of the world’s electricity.

The free fall in the price of solar panels is helping to make solar a more attractive alternative - even if the same price plunge has forced U.S. solar companies Evergreen and SpectraWatt into bankruptcy.

Solar plants will get even bigger one day, when space stations beam down electricity from satellite-mounted solar panels, but that’s yet another story.

Of course, the ultimate winner of the world’s largest solar plant is the sun, sitting up there 93 million miles away perpetrating nuclear fusion that has over the ages provided the heat that has fired up all sorts of energy value chains including fossil fuels, hydro, wind and to some extent, geothermal. (We’ll give tidal credit to the moon. As for nuclear, well, if fusion power stations ever come around, we can thank the sun for inspiration).

Unofficially, almost all of the world’s naturally-sourced energy is solar power.

Photo: clc2uniservity.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