Operating and New Solar Power Plants

The first concentrating trough-type solar power plant in the United States was built in 1988. It is the 1 mW Saguaro plant located north of Tucson, Arizona, and was built for Arizona Public Service (APS). It covers 1 km2 and has parabolic trough-shaped mirrors.

Today, the largest solar power plant in the United States is the 22-year-old thermal plant in California's Mojave Desert, which has a combined total capacity of 354 mW. At Kramer Junction, California, nine solar power plants, each 30 mW or larger, have been in operation for two decades. The yearly insolation in the area is 2,940 kWh/m2. Plant efficiencies range from 10 to 17%, and their capital costs range from $2,500 to $3,500 per kWp.* The cost of generated electricity from these plants drops as their size increases, and ranges from 10 to 17^/kWh.

Other installations include one by a Spanish company named Acciona Energy, which recently started up a 64-mW solar thermal power plant near Boulder City in Nevada. This company is also planning two thermal solar plants in southern Spain (50 mW each) in Palma del Rio for an investment of 0.5 billion euros.

* The capacity of a collector is expressed in terms of its peak power production (Wp). This is the amount of electric power that a PV module is able to generate when it receives 1,000 watts per square meter of vertical solar irradiation at 25°C cell temperature. This is also called one sun. If this level of insolation existed for 24 h every day of the year, each m2 of collector area would receive 8,760 kWh/yr. The actual rate of power generation is naturally less. The value of Wp/ m2 of a module is also called its power density or efficiency. Therefore a 10% efficient module when receiving one sun will generate 0.1 kWp/m2 and a 15% will generate 0.15 kWp/m2.

A number of new solar power plants are under construction. In 2007, First Solar signed a contract to produce 685 mW of solar collectors over 5 years for $1.28 billion, or at a unit cost of $1.87/W. This might correspond to a $3/W installed cost. Southern California Edison is erecting a 500 mW plant designed by Solel Solar Systems of Beit Shemesh, Israel. It is scheduled to start up in 2009.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is building the largest solar thermal power plant in the world (560 mW) in the Mojave Desert, using troughlike arrays of mirrors that concentrate the sunlight onto steam-generating oil pipes over a 9 mi2 area. This power plant is expected to produce electricity at slightly more than 10i/kWh. Seventeen percent of the electricity produced by PG&E comes from renewable energy sources, and the company is aiming at reaching a 20% target in the near future. Southern California Edison (SCE) has also signed a similar contract for a solar thermal power plant.

Both Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have signed contracts with Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix for two power plants of higher efficiency (30%) than the solar thermal ones. A 500 mW plant will be built at Victorville, California, in the Mojave Desert for Southern California Edison. This construction is estimated to take 3-4 years. The plant will consist of 20,000 dishes over a 4,500 acre (18 km2 = 7 mi2) area. A 300 mW plant will also be built at Imperial Valley, Calexico, California, for San Diego Gas and Electric over 2,000 acres (8 km2 = 3 mi2). In 2008, Southern California Edison also started an $875 million project that will cover some 2 square miles of unused rooftops and generate 250 mW of electricity.

In Boulder City, Nevada, in 2006 the construction of a $250 million, 64 mW solar thermal power plant named Solar One started. It uses Schott's new PTR 70 solar receivers and is built by Solargenix Energy.

Both Israel and China are building large solar power plants at investments of about $2,500/m2 of collector area. The initial capacity of the solar thermal power plant in the Negev Desert in Israel is planned to be 150 mW, and it is estimated to cost $350 million. The plant is planned to expand to 500 mW at a cost of $1 billion.

In Dunhuang City, Gansu Province in China, the construction of a 100 mW $765 million solar power plant has been approved. The plant will have 3.1 km2 of solar collectors at an installed cost of $2,450/m2. Because the Sun shines for 3,362 h/yr in the area, assuming that the plant will run fully loaded when solar energy can be collected and that the electricity will be sold at 12^/kWh, the value of the produced electricity will be $40.3 million per year.

In Portugal, an 11 mW solar power plant has been designed by SunPower and Catavento. It consists of 52,000 collectors over a 62 acre area (0.25 km2 = 0.1 mi2). At an investment of $75 million, it is expected to generate 20 gWh/yr.

A 40 mW photovoltaic installation started up in Eastern Germany near Leipzig in 2007 using thin-film technology. The total area of the plant is 4.5 km2 and the electricity generated is sent to the grid. The insolation in the area is about 1,000 kWh/yr and the efficiency of the thin-film collectors is estimated to be 5 to 7%.

Another concentrating solar power (CSP) plant is planned in Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi.

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