Solar energy boom in the American desert

The U.S. government last month approved a permit for the world’s biggest solar power project. It will use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays to heat a fluid that creates steam to drive electricity-generating turbines.

While the technology has been widely used before, the scale of the complex near Blythe in Southern California, proposed by Solar Millennium AG of Germany, is attracting attention. It will have a capacity of 1,000 megawatts (MW), enough to provide electricity for up to 750,000 homes.

At full power after 2013, the Blythe complex will be the equivalent of a large nuclear or coal-burning power plant, although electricity supply will be intermittent depending on the strength of the sun and the time of day.

California has made it obligatory for utilities in the state to get one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. So the output of the new solar complex being built at a cost of over $6 billion has been snapped up.

It is just one of nine big solar farms in the Southwestern U.S. that are expected to start construction before the end of the year as developers race to qualify for tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loan guarantees.

These concentrated solar energy plants will generate nearly 4,000 MW of electricity if built, almost 10 times the amount of solar power added to the U.S. grid last year. Nearly all will use various concentrating solar power technologies instead of the extensive arrays of photovoltaic (PV) cell panels that are the main way of generating electricity from the sun in Germany, another top solar power producer.

Meanwhile, South Africa is wooing investors to what the government hopes will become a 5,000 MW solar park at Upington on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. It would provide one-eighth of the country’s current consumption of electricity.

In October South Africa’s Energy Minister Dipuo Peters told a meeting of more than 400 solar energy investors and specialists that the park, estimated to cost around $21 billion and reach peak capacity by 2020, would be funded mainly by private capital and would sell electricity to the national grid.

The area around Upington has some of the best conditions for large-scale solar power including reliable sunshine, relatively well-developed infrastructure and vast expanses of flat, empty land. The project is part of government plans to create 300,000 "green" economy jobs by 2020 and make South Africa a global leader in solar energy.

The U.S. and South African ventures are likely to be matched by new schemes in China, India and other sunny parts of Asia. Earlier this year, the Asian Development Bank announced that it would provide $2.25 billion to help finance large capacity solar projects that would generate some 3,000 MW of electricity by mid-2013.

Last month, the ADB said it would make a $2 million technical assistance grant to establish an Asia Solar Energy Forum to bring interested countries and companies together to work out the best locations, technologies and business models for expanding solar electricity generation in the region.

Although solar energy is one of the fastest growing renewable sources of power, Asia has yet to tap its natural advantages in the sector. Among them are plentiful sunlight, fast growing demand for electricity, and availability of land with little alternative use.

The eight solar farms in California that are expected to get under way this year will turn 74 square kilometers of desert into a futuristic landscape of mirrors, solar dishes, PV panels and towers. Gas is the dominant fuel for electricity in California. Gas-fired plants can produce electricity for about 10 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. Including government subsidies, solar thermal plants are expected to generate power at 13 to 17 cents per kwh.

Government subsidies and financial incentives may be needed to spur advances in solar power. But Germany is now worried that it may have gone too far. As a result of a generous guaranteed payment for feeding electricity into the national grid, the installation of rooftop solar panels and large-scale PV farms has exploded. At least 8,000 MW of extra capacity is likely to be added this year, double the amount in 2009.

If expansion continues, Germany could have nearly 50,000 MW of solar power capacity by 2013. Some officials are warning that this could strain the grid, causing overloads and blackouts as huge surges of intermittent solar power come at midday rather than in the evening when demand is high.

Solar and wind power help to cut polluting fossil fuel use and global warming emissions. However, to be sustainable they must be competitive with other forms of electricity generation and managed carefully in a smart grid.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore,