It’s just outside Phoenix. No, it’s in the Mojave. Wait, no, it’s in San Benito County.
On a media call this week in which executives and investors from the solar industry stumped for extensions to key federal incentives, I heard Fred Morse of Abengoa Solar say that the company’s Solana project in Gila Bend, Arizona, will be, as described on the project website, “the world’s largest solar plant.” Later that same day, an email came in from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, (not in response) touting its Ivanpah project as “the largest solar project in the world.” Similar terms have been used to describe Solargen’s proposed 4,700-acre photovoltaic array in San Benito County.
The power generation business has entered a new age of superlatives.
There are various ways of measuring size. The physical footprint of the plant could be one but usually such projects are ranked by their planned power capacity, in megawatts. BrightSource says Ivanpah will be about 400 MW. Peterson says that if Solargen isn’t forced to downsize the Panoche array to get it permitted, it would clock in at 420 MW (to put this in perspective, the twin reactors at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant are rated at more than 1,000 MW–each).
Part of the confusion may lie in the different technologies. Utility-scale solar projects can be either PV or “solar-thermal” arrays. The latter uses focused sunlight to make steam and requires fewer panels for the same output.
According to BrightSource CEO John Woolard, size matters. Woolard estimates that in order to stabilize atmospheric carbon at 450 parts per million (we’re at 392 and counting) by 2050, “Every day we have to build the equivalent – somewhere in this world – of a nuclear power-plant’s-worth of output of carbon-free energy. It’ll be a combination of wind, solar, some nuclear, maybe we’ll figure out carbon sequestration, but 1 gigawatt per day.”
In any case, new projects are being slated at such a pace that the answer to which is the biggest may be: “What day is it?”
Meanwhile, some developers are taking the opposite tack. Last month, PG&E threw the ceremonial switch on its Vaca-Dixon solar array, just off I-80, west of Davis. It’s an example of what you might call “solar infill.” Built on 16,000 acres surrounded by farmland, the photovoltaic (PV) array generates just two megawatts of power for the grid. Eventually, though, the utility plans to build out enough PV patches to produce 500 MW (enough to power about 150,000 average homes in California); half on its own and half from contractors. All the arrays, however, will be two megawatts or less.
In the video clip below, PG&E President Chris Johns talks about the company’s newest solar mini-farm.
By the way, Terra-Gen Power announced this week that after lining up more than a billion dollars in financing, it will break ground next week on a 3,000-megawatt wind farm in Kern County. Once all five phases of the Alta Wind Energy Center are built, it would be, according to Terra-Gen, “the largest wind power project in the world”…of course.