Mainstreaming solar energy means trade-offs -- and rewards | SEPA Skip to content

Mainstreaming solar energy means trade-offs — and rewards

By K Kaufmann

Renewable Energy World and Power Engineering recently announced the finalists for their 2014 Project of the Year Award, and for the first time, two of the five facilities up for the award are megascale concentrated solar power (CSP) plants.


The two candidates are Abengoa Solar’s 250-megawatt (MW) Solana project in Arizona, which uses parabolic trough technology with thermal storage, and BrightSource Energy’s 379-MW Ivanpah project in California, a solar-tower project without storage. The other three contenders include United Nations City, a LEED-designed, super-efficient, solar-powered complex in Copenhagen; Canada’s Atikokan coal-to-biomass plant conversion in Ontario, and the 115-megawatt Pantex wind project in Amarillo.

The winner will be announced Dec. 8 at REW’s and Power Engineering’s joint conference in Orlando.

Update: Ivanpah named PennWell’s Project of Year for 2014. Read more here.

MT Ivanpah5
The Ivanpah solar project’s reflecting mirrors and and one
of its solar towers topped with a white-hot boiler.
(Photo by Mike Taylor.)

The nomination of two CSP plants is significant in and of itself, underlining not only their technical achievements but the growing acceptance of solar as an integral part of the energy mainstream. CSP may remain controversial in the public mind for its costs and environmental impacts, but anyone who has seen one of these mammoth projects spreading out over thousands of acres of public land in the American Southwest cannot help but be a little awestruck.

More awards for CSP: SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes project honored by ENR Southwest. Read about it here.

I speak from experience here. In my former job as a reporter covering energy in Southern California, I toured Ivanpah, as well as NextEra Energy’s 250-MW Genesis project, another CSP plant using parabolic troughs, as well as the company’s 550-MW Desert Sunlight project, which is photovoltaic. I saw all three both during their construction and once they were either partially or all in operation, and my job meant being skeptical and asking hard questions.

But however much I tried to maintain the appropriate journalistic objectivity, the size and scale of these projects were always jaw-dropping. On first view, your eyes and mind have to recalibrate to the fact that all these panels and  mirrors are actually harnessing sunlight and turning it into massive amounts of electricity.


This doesn’t mean trade-offs aren’t involved. Solar, wind, geothermal and natural gas are all part of Southern California’s very diversified energy portfolio and one thing I learned from my years of writing about these very different resources is that no form of energy, “dirty” or “clean,” comes without social and environmental impacts. All  require trade-offs of some sort, and the extent to which such compromises are publicly viewed as acceptable evolves with time and context.


Local opposition was fierce and seemingly unrelenting when the first wind turbines were built in the San Gorgonio Pass north of Palm Springs in the 1980s. Today, the tall turbines and their spinning white blades are most often described as “iconic” and have become an integral part of the region’s identity as a destination for eco-tourism.


Similarly, rooftop solar was, and to a certain extent still is, seen as a visual blight and threat to property values in small communities and neighborhoods. At the same time, a growing number of real estate developers are making well-designed, relatively unobtrusive solar arrays a standard feature of “green” energy-efficient homes. Solar is becoming an amenity, similar to central air conditioning or Energy Star appliances.


Whether megascale solar projects, built on large tracts of land relatively far from urban markets,  will remain a viable part of the United States’ energy future will depend on a range of variables — economic, environmental, political and technological. But as noted in a recent report from the energy consulting firm, Ceres, falling costs and advancing technology have made utility-scale photovoltaic solar projects of 1-5 MW or more a low-cost, low-risk option for utilities in a growing number of regions in the country.

Another key point in the report, prices for utility-scale solar in general are projected to keep dropping through 2020.

Obviously, more solar and other renewable and distributed resources are coming to the grid, and they will all require collaboration, hard decisions and trade-offs. But the rewards of making them and moving forward with new and even bolder projects could be awe-inspiring.

K Kaufmann is communications manager of the Solar Electric Power Association.