Could Utility-Scale Solar be the Panacea?

Since the Fukushima disaster began,  we have seen the number of utility-scale renewable energy projects multiply. Even French oil conglomerate Total is breaking into utility-scale low concentration CPV by purchasing SunPower.  And GE‘s joint venture with eSolar for combined cycle power points in the big scale direction for renewables.

In a recent comprehensive study  GTM Research describes the huge potential  technology for utility-scale solar within the solar market. Total solar power (PV, CSP, CPV) is forecast to grow 67% between  2011 and 2015  i.e. from 18GW to 30.4GW.  Within that market the share of utility-scale will increase from 25% of total solar power to 43%.

Among the utility-scale technologies the most promising is CPV (concentrated photovoltaics). Today the CPV project pipeline looks small, only 689MW  compared to 33,000MW of non-concentrating PV already installed. But the potential is huge– especially in the US where 45GW of new solar installations are necessary to meet RPS requirements by 2020.  Two companies dominate this niche market: Amonix with 60% of the existing capacity in operation and  Concentrix Solar (owned by the French company Soitec) with the greatest number of  contract wins with total of 355MW in San Diego alone.

What’s driving CPV?  The most obvious is that it has much greater potential to improve efficiency than  PV. The efficiency of Concentrix reached 27.2% on average this year and GTM forecasts it can get to 31.3% by 2015. PV companies like First Solar or SunPower are unlikely to improve their efficiencies by more than 100 basis points in the same period (from 11.3% and 20.3% respectively). CPV is also better on water usage than solar thermal, and  easier to deploy as modules are smaller.

What’s holding back CPV development?  GTM claims the bankability is worse than for other more established technologies not because of its utility-size but because it’s newer and therefore riskier in the eyes of the banks. But the utilities are behind it since CPV projects are claiming better IRR’s, longer output than PV, and even local job creation  e.g. Soitec is building a plant locally.

Finally, as always, cost is “Key Metric # 1”. According to GTM  the levelized costs (Installation Cost for Typical Configuration with or without tracking in $/W-dc) of High CPV (e.g. Concentrix) is the same as Mono Crystalline Silicon PV. Since installation costs are already much lower for CPV (25% of LCOE vs. 32% for PV),  the key to CPV cost savings will be in a cheaper module.  China, not yet an actor in the CPV space could help to push this drive CPV forward in the same way that they have driven forward PV.

Categories: Economic Indicators, Solar, Uncategorized

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