US Concentrated Solar Power Industry receives its biggest boost by DOE

2011 will go down In the concentrated solar energy history books as an excellent year. Following announcements for 2 loan guarantees in late 2010 to construct Ivanpah (a tower concentrating solar power plant by BrightSource Energy) and Solana (a parabolic trough with 7 hours storage by Abengoa), 2011 has come with an unprecedented levels of support by the DOE for the concentrating solar power industry.

One of the companies who have recently secured DOE backing with a loan guarantee is celebrating their ground-breaking ceremony today. With over $2.1bl in founding, this plant will be the largest in the world at 1GW once it is complete. However, this journey to solar thermal market proliferation and support has been a turbulent one!

Following a 20 year hiatus, the first US concentrated solar energy plant was constructed in Las Vegas in 2006 by Acciona Solar (Now Acciona Energy). The plant was named Nevada Solar I and it is a parabolic trough technology plant with an output of 64MW. Only one project in Florida came to fruition in the years after that, until 2010 when the Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Plant was developed by NextEra in Florida.

However, in the last quarter of 2010 two plants of never-seen-before dimensions obtained conditional loan guarantees and are now under construction: The Ivanpah and Solana projects.

The novelty of these plants is the size and innovation incorporated in their designs, with a 7 hours of molten salt storage for Solana (A 280 MW parabolic trough plant); and the tower design for Ivanpah (3 towers totalling up to 392 MW). Both were the largest announced in the world at the time. Ivanpah also constituted a leapfrog advance in tower technology scaling up 6.5 times the size per tower that had been achieved previously by PS20, a 20MW tower plant in Sevilla (Spain).

2011 has so far followed a positively similar trend, with $3.35bn having been announced by the DoE in loan guarantees for 4 different projects: Blythe (Solar Trust of America, 2x 240MW part of 1GW plant), Crescent Dunes (SolarReserve, 110MW tower project, The Mojave Solar Project (Abengoa, 280MW) and Genesis Solar Project (NextEra, 250MW trough project). The industry are waiting with baited breath to see whether 2011 will be the turning point in the US industry on its journey to market dominance.

It hasn’t been an easy ride so far – “With 479 MW of Concentrating Solar Power connected to the grid, the early leadership of the USA in installed MW capacity was surpassed last year by Spain with over 1GW currently connected to the grid” continues Gallego

However, with 1,796 MW now in construction with the support of the loan guarantees and more than 10GW in the pipeline, the industry is gaining real momentum in the USA. Reducing costs, securing transmission, environmental permits and financing are still enormous roadblocks for full development of the industry in the USA.