A windy stretch of the Mojave Desert once roamed by tortoises and coyotes has been transformed by hundreds of thousands of mirrors into the largest solar power plant of its type in the world, a milestone for a growing industry that is testing the balance between wilderness conservation and the pursuit of green energy across the American West.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, formally opened Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles ranging from relocating protected tortoises to assessing the impact on Mojave milkweed and other plants.
"The Ivanpah project is a shining example of how America is becoming a world leader in solar energy," U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement after attending a dedication ceremony at the site. "This project shows that building a clean-energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions and fosters American innovation."
The $2.2 billion complex of three generating units, owned by NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy, can produce nearly 400 megawatts enough power for 140,000 homes. It began making electricity last year.
China is projected to install 12,000 megawatts of solar power in 2014, giving it the "gold medal" in the figurative 2014 Solar Olympics, according to GTM Research.
That amount will be greater than what the United States has installed in all of its solar history.
Japan will take "silver" in 2014 with 7,500 megawatts forecast. The U.S. will take bronze at 5,300.
"China's rise to the top in global PV installations has been impressive, to say the least," GTM Research solar analyst Adam James said in the release. "Although transparency continues to be a problem in accurately sizing the market, GTM sees the shift to production-based incentives and increased downstream financing support driving deployment to new heights over the next few years."
For the first time in the past four year period, no European country will feature on the podium.
"While European feed-in tariff markets have been great at the short-distance events, the global solar market is clearly aiming toward the long-distance contenders in Asia and North America," said Shayle Kann, senior vice president at GTM Research. "But don't count out emerging markets. By the time the Summer Olympics roll around in Rio, Latin America will be a PV force to contend with."
One-third of all Americans who work in solar power live in California, according to an annual survey released Tuesday.
And their numbers are growing fast.
The solar industry employed 47,223 Californians last year, up 8 percent from 2012, according to the survey from the Solar Foundation, a research and advocacy group.
Nationwide, the solar industry employed 142,698 people. And while the rate of solar job growth nationwide was faster than in California, nearly hitting 20 percent last year, the Golden State still dominates the business.
"California is, by far, the leader," said Andrea Luecke, the foundation's executive director. "It's not by accident that the solar industry is based there."
Most of California's solar jobs, however, focus on panel installation and financing versus research and development efforts to create new technologies.
Starting more than 10 years ago, California officials made a concerted push to foster the solar industry. They forced the state's utilities to buy more renewable power and offered rebates to homeowners who bolted solar panels to their roofs.
The effort appears to have worked. Most of the country's largest solar companies are based in California, particularly in the Bay Area. The foundation's survey counted 21,653 solar jobs around the bay.
Sunrun and Mainstream Energy Corp. today announced that Sunrun has acquired the residential division of REC Solar, AEE Solar and SnapNrack. The companies represent Mainstream Energy's residential solar sales, design and installation; wholesale distribution; and mounting systems and hardware businesses, respectively. In the commercial market, REC Solar will continue as an independent organization under the legal name REC Solar Commercial Corp. The value of the transaction was not disclosed.
"Sunrun pioneered solar service to remove the most significant barriers to going solar. We continue to innovate our business to further drive down costs, increase quality and broaden our reach to consumers so more homeowners have access to affordable home solar," said Lynn Jurich, Chief Executive Officer of Sunrun. "The residential solar market is growing rapidly and this acquisition marks the next step in our multi-channel growth strategy. REC Solar's residential division, AEE Solar and SnapNrack complement our thriving channel business and further enable us to fulfill the enormous market potential for home solar nationwide."
REC Solar is a national leader in solar electric system design and installation, with more than 11,000 customers across seven states. Since becoming Sunrun's first installation partner in 2007, REC Solar has helped thousands of homeowners elect solar energy with Sunrun's solar service, which allows homeowners to pay a low rate for clean energy and fix their electric costs for 20 years.
"REC Solar is the industry leader in customer satisfaction and high quality construction, while AEE Solar and SnapNrack bring capabilities that allow us to make solar energy affordable for more consumers, provide superior systems and service, and lay the foundation to become a major energy company," Jurich said.
With taller wind turbines, the new program is also expected to open up an additional 237,000 square miles of wind-friendly areas for wind power potential, which is about the size of Texas (the image above compares the area change in square kilometers between the hub height of 96 and that of 140).
The areas of the US most likely to benefit from the improved wind technology are mainly located in the Southeast, where alternative energy is starting to find a friendly reception despite pushback by certain legislators from those states.
There's a paradox in the growing global appetite for greener energy. As sales of solar panels and wind turbines increase, so too does the scale of an often-overlooked problem now being stored for future generations. What happens to all the "green" infrastructure when it reaches the end of its life?
When early-generation green technology is replaced, much of it now finds its way into landfill or incinerators. This is not only a blow to waste-reduction efforts, adding hundreds of thousands of tons of rubbish to the global tally every year, but also is also a colossal missed opportunity. Solar panels comprise metals and glass, which, if they were separated and captured, could be reused in the manufacture of other products.
It is possible, through innovative technologies still being developed, to recycle more than 90 percent of a solar panel. But, given the volatility in the value of the resulting raw materials, this is a high-risk sector to develop, and research and development is lacking. Basic recycling schemes do exist, but often focus on two valuable components -- the glass and aluminum frame, for instance -- and discard the rest, including silver, silicon and tin, because it is not yet cost-effective to recycle them.
Bosch is set to pay SolarWorld some €130m in order to acquire the majority of its German solar operations.
The firm will continue to employ the majority of the personnel in Arnstadt, in the german state of Thuringia, the Wall Street Journal reported citing people familiar with the agreement.
Expected to close next month, the deal was agreed in late November but the balance due to SolarWorld will be due later, and could be under €130m if operations in Arnstadt take a turn for the better.
In exchange, SolarWorld will be unable to use the Arnstadt assets as debt collateral for several years – a move by Bosch that will prevent the operations in Arnstadt from falling into the hands of SolarWorld’s creditors.
SolarWorld is currently highly indebted and is planning a financial restructuring in February, with plans to offer investors new shares in place of 55 per cent of the company’s liabilities.
Five years after the Obama administration's renewable energy initiative touched off a building boom of large-scale solar power plants across the desert Southwest, the pace of development has slowed to a crawl, with a number of companies going out of business and major projects canceled for lack of financing.
Of the 365 federal solar applications since 2009, just 20 plants are on track to be built. Only three large-scale solar facilities have gone online, two in California and one in Nevada. The first auction of public land for solar developers, an event once highly anticipated by federal planners, failed to draw a single bid last fall.
Several factors are responsible, industry analysts say. The tight economy has made financing difficult to obtain, and the federal government has not said whether it will continue to offer tax credits of the size that brought a rush of interest in large-scale solar five years ago.
"I would say we are in an assessment period," said Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute. "Nobody's going to break ground on any big new solar projects right now — utilities want to see how farms coming online this year fit into the grid, and developers are waiting for more certainty about state policies and federal tax credits."
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