The (r)evolution of PV power plant sizes

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In this guest blog, Edwin Koot, founder of solarplaza.com, discusses the growing trend of the ever-increasing size of utility-scale PV power plants and the implications facing the industry as both the scale and number of such projects are set to increase. He writes a regular blog on his website here.

All the way back in 1995, a revolutionary 3.3MW ground-based solar PV power plant was connected to the grid in Serre, Italy. At that time the world’s largest PV system, it was built as a demonstration project and financed through various subsidies.

From big beers to the biggest PV plant

It took almost a decade before the market for bigger PV projects really took off. From 2004, when the German feed-In tariff started to flourish, tens of power plants of 1MW or more were being built in Germany. A 5MW plant, at that moment the world’s largest, was built near Espenhain for 22 million euro, or 4.4 euro per Wp. And in 2005 the new record was a 10MW power plant project in Bavaria, which cost 49.5 million euro. Bavarians think big–be it cars, beers or solar PV.

From that point on, development grew faster and faster. By the end of 2007, even more PV plants of over 10MW had been built, with several in Spain, where the lucrative feed-in tariff had started two years earlier, with further 10MW projects in Germany.

Large-scale power plants at rocket speed in Spain

Due to the Spanish FIT law, large-scale power plant developments gained rocket speed in 2008, with four power plants above 40MW and one at a whopping 60MW in Olmedilla, Spain. The latter was constructed in 16 months at a cost of 384 million euro, or 6.40 euro/Wp. Because of the lucrative Spanish FIT, the price could go up to provide a nice margin for everyone involved. Like a Pamplona bull run, the government’s feed-in law resulted in large-scale development of further such projects. Even today, Spain still contains about 70% of the world’s large-scale PV power plants–in total over 1000 big projects. An impressive overview of the world’s largest PV power plants can be found on the great website, www.pvresources.com.

Thin film enters the arena

Although an outsider might think that the bigger the project, the more interesting it would be to use high-efficiency modules, less-efficient thin-film technology entered the arena in 2009. In this year a few more 50MW+ projects were completed, mainly in Germany, including one using cadmium telluride thin-film modules. At the end of 2010, three projects of over 80MW were to be finished and connected to the grid, including the first one in North America: the Sarnia project in Ontario, Canada, once again built using First Solar thin film panels, at around 3.75 Euro/Wp.

‘Small step for the industry…’

From 50+ to 250MW is a relatively small step for the industry, but a giant leap for market development. North American energy utilities are starting to seriously consider solar PV. The next steps will likely take place on that side of the Atlantic as well. Sunpower and NRG Solar plan to start construction of the 250MW California Valley Solar Ranch project in 2011. Also in 2010, First Solar announced the development of a 550MW power plant project in the desert near Los Angeles. Energy utilities PG&E and SCE will buy the power.

Solar PV: fast, experienced and cheap

What does this teach us? First of all, development of large-scale PV power plants is progressing rapidly. Secondly, the building process goes fast. In 2008 in Spain, over 2GW was installed in the space of a year. Thirdly, there is a tremendous track record of experience. Finally, prices have come down, but there is room for improvement. If large-scale orders of top-tier module brands can be purchased for less than 1.30 euro/Wp and the other BOS cost  can get to less than 1 euro/Wp, total system cost should be able to close at 2.30 euro/Wp. With module prices expected to decline the coming years, turnkey system costs under the 2 euro/Wp mark will become achievable.

The next step: Better, faster, bigger and cheaper

Anyone who says that solar PV is not yet a proven technology is invited to take a look at the overview of existing large-scale power plants throughout the world. Do not forget that behind each project are investors, installers, banks, engineers, consultants, and many more experts involved who made this happen. Through sheer drive, these involved people and companies are keen to prove that they can do better, faster, bigger, and cheaper next time around.

Not available around the corner

And this will continue. We will see bigger projects, for cheaper. It will be nothing more than a natural development to see 100MW+ plants being built over the next three to five years. Not one, but several. Because if one company can, others will want to prove they can do better and cheaper as well. For example, in the case of First Solar reaching the 500MW mark, the market and industry are following suit, aiming at 1000MW projects. I expect these projects will be announced within three years and built within six years.

These projects will require the involvement of strong, bankable, large companies. Even if the projects cost less than 2 euro/W, the investment requiired for a 100MW project will be around 200 million euro. Not something a multinational energy utility will buy from the first PV installer around the corner.

A different ballgame

Today, production costs as low as 15 eurocents per kWh have been achieved by a solar PV plant in France. The cost per produced kilwatt-hour will soon get close to 0.10 euro, even without any support of feed-in tariffs. That is a different ballgame. The PV power plant proposition will become attractive for many utilities looking for quickly installed, clean, reliable, cheap power, without future risks related to global political changes, possible CO2 taxes, or fuel price and currency fluctuations.

Separating the men from the boys

The development of these large-scale projects will fuel industry consolidation and will distinguish the men from the boys in this industry. Only the real big bankable companies will be able to guarantee a continuous supply of these large amounts of modules. These companies will compete heavily for these projects–they guarantee their baseload manufacturing capacity, and take a hell of a lot less sales and acquisition time than selling 30,000 systems to households at the same volume. Although the title “biggest solar PV project in the world” may be changing hands faster and faster, it is not bad for your image and branding to have it bestowed on your company for a while.

 

Edwin Koot , solarplaza.com

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