The Ivanpah solar plant, which will be the world's biggest when it's completed in 2013, uses adjustable angled mirrors to focus the sun's rays for power collection. Credit: BrightSource Energy.
The $2.2 billion Ivanpah complex, which is backed by a $1.6 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan and private capital, will generate about 370 megawatts of power per year for PG&E and Southern California Edison when it's completed in 2013. That's enough to power 140,000 homes, and nearly twice the amount of solar power generated commercially last year in the U.S., according to BrightSource. But it will still just be a supplement to existing power generation sources.
The problem, Wachs says, is that many states are not equipped to transmit that power. Last year, about 11,000 miles of natural gas pipelines were installed in the United States. In comparison, says Wachs, about 700 miles of solar transmission lines were installed in 2010. So while Los Angeles can benefit greatly from the Ivanpah plant, other cities are currently left without access to its solar power.
That's the case for Minneapolis, says city energy manager John Millberg. The city has a goal to use about 1 megawatt of renewable energy per year for all city services by 2014. Today, the city uses about 800 kilowatts per year, aided by a rooftop solar installation on the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Millberg says Minneapolis would be open to purchasing power from another state that has a massive solar power plant, but today the costs are too high. The city does have plans to install a transmission line for wind energy that's generated south of the city, he adds.
Solar roof panels provide about 5 percent of the power used by the Minneapolis Convention Center.Credit: City of Minneapolis.
Like Minneapolis, many state and municipal governments have renewable energy initiatives on the books. California, for instance, has passed legislation requiring utilities that serve the state to get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, despite concerns about higher costs for consumers and businesses. The city of San Francisco has an even more ambitious goal of using 100 percent renewable power by 2020. And Austin, Texas, has already achieved its goal of running the city government entirely with renewable energy.
Driven by initiatives like these, solar will inevitably grow in importance as a power source for U.S. cities, with a mix of rooftop solar panels that feed energy directly to homes and businesses and utility-generated solar power that augments power from existing sources, according to Gartner's Velosa. Several small plants, such as the 32-megawatt Long Island Solar Farm in Upton, N.Y., and the 30-megawatt Cimarron Solar Facility in Colfax County, N.M., are already up and running.
"Depending on how you cut the data, we have hundreds of plants in the utility-centered photovoltaic market, ranging from 0.2-to-0.5-gigawatt behemoths to 5-megawatt projects," says Velosa. "Many still lack financing, but [the sector] is extremely active and dynamic."