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Supersized Solar Farms Are Sprouting Around the World
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=49038"><span class="small">Mark Harris, NBC News</span></a>   
Sunday, 02 September 2018 08:22

Harris writes: "In a quest to cut the cost of clean electricity, power utilities around the world are supersizing their solar farms."

The Villanueva photovoltaic power plant is operated by the Italian company Enel Green Power in the desert near Villanueva, Mexico. (photo: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)
The Villanueva photovoltaic power plant is operated by the Italian company Enel Green Power in the desert near Villanueva, Mexico. (photo: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)


Supersized Solar Farms Are Sprouting Around the World

By Mark Harris, NBC News

02 September 18


A vast photovoltaic facility now being built in Egypt is part of a global trend.

n a quest to cut the cost of clean electricity, power utilities around the world are supersizing their solar farms.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in southern Egypt, where what will be the world’s largest solar farm — a vast collection of more than 5 million photovoltaic panels — is now taking shape. When it’s completed next year, the $4 billion Benban solar park near Aswan will cover an area 10 times bigger than New York’s Central Park and generate up to 1.8 gigawatts of electricity.

That’s roughly the output of two nuclear power plants combined and almost double the planned capacity of the vast Villanueva facility now growing in the Mexican state of Coahuila — currently the largest facility in the Americas. (The largest solar farm in the U.S. is the 580-megawatt Solar Star facility near Los Angeles.)

But Benban probably won’t hold on to its title for long.

China is planning to build a two-gigawatt solar farm in the northwestern province of Ningxia, and the state of Gujarat in western India recently gave the go-ahead for a five-gigawatt facility. Japan is even talking about putting a large-scale solar farm in space.

The bigger, the cheaper

“There are huge savings for larger projects,” says Benjamin Attia, a solar analyst with Wood Mackenzie, an energy consulting firm based in Edinburgh, Scotland. “Logistics, transport, construction and installation all benefit from scale economies. We’ll start to see more solar parks of one and two gigawatts, and potentially even 10 gigawatts in the future.”

The plunging cost of solar panels is part of the cost-savings equation. A 2017 report from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the cost of photovoltaic systems shrank by a factor of five from 2010 to 2017. Even the punitive tariffs on Chinese solar panels enacted earlier this year by the Trump administration are unlikely to slow the spread of large-scale solar, which in the U.S. is already cheaper and much cleaner than coal.

“Governments have wised up,” says Attia. “They just want the cheapest, fastest way to add new electricity supplies. For nuclear, procurement can take a decade. For gas, it’s up to four years. If you’re talking solar and things go smoothly, you can build a reasonably large project in 18 months.”

Solar power is now a particularly attractive option for developing countries. When solar panels were more expensive, only rich nations could afford the subsidies and tax breaks that allowed solar farms to make financial sense. In many sunny parts of the world, solar power is now competitive with other power sources without financial assistance (and that's also true for parts of the U.S. and other developed nations).

Some of the biggest new farms, including Benban, are set up so that the panels are owned and operated not by a single utility but instead shared by dozens of firms. This arrangement helps reduce the red tape associated with permits and regulations, says Attia, and allows even small solar start-ups to benefit from economies of scale.

The key role of Infrastructure

But even if the cost of solar panels continues to fall, there are upper limits to the size of future solar parks. A solar farm is only useful if the electricity it generates can reach the homes and factories that need it, often hundreds of miles away. Electricity transmission grids can struggle to cope with the intermittent power that massive new wind and solar farms generate.

“Typically, those locations are going to be pretty remote,” says Daniel Kirschen, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The grid around new solar or wind farms will not be very strong. So you’re going to need to reinforce the grid, and that can get quite expensive.”

China, in particular, has grappled with the infrastructure problem, and in the past has been unable to use up to 30 percent of the electricity generated by newly built solar farms. One possible solution is to build so-called supergrids that move electricity over vast distances to ensure that it’s not wasted.

A grid to connect China, Korea, Russia and Japan is being proposed, and a planned European supergrid could span the continent by the late 2020s.

Where the sun never sets

Not every nation is able to join the solar revolution, of course. Crowded, cloudy Japan, for example, has neither the open spaces nor the reliable months of sunshine needed for gargantuan solar parks. So it’s looking to build a solar power station where the sun always shines and space is not an issue: outer space.

Japan’s space agency, JAXA, is working to put into orbit a one-gigawatt orbital solar farm that can generate power 24 hours a day. Starting in the 2030s, the solar space station would beam down energy as microwaves to a human-made island covered with billions of antennas. The agency has already demonstrated a system that can beam energy a few hundred yards, though questions remain about the practicality and safety of space-based power stations.

Space-based solar power aside, the biggest rivals to massive solar parks on Earth are likely to be the small solar panels installed atop houses and in backyards.

Large solar farms account for the vast majority of panels installed around the world, but in developed countries like the U.S. and Germany, household solar power has about an equal share. Homeowners can sell power back to the grid, or even store it locally using batteries originally developed for electric cars. Solar micro-grids are also becoming popular in developing nations that lack good rural power connections or are prone to extreme weather events.

However humans tap into solar energy, the good news is that there is plenty of it. More of the sun’s energy strikes the Earth’s surface in two hours than we consume in all forms every year. A solar park covering just 2 percent of the Sahara could provide the globe’s entire energy needs — assuming we could build a planetary supergrid to access it.


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+8 # dotlady 2018-09-02 10:17
Why is big always thought to be better - I know, scale brings down cost. But the cost of connecting these giant remote solar farms to communities will be extraordinary. Why not small or medium size sites closer but not too close to the communities that are using it, i.e. distributed power? We are creating future monopolies rather than independence.
 
 
+5 # lfeuille 2018-09-02 13:46
Connecting them is not a problem. They connected to the grid which covers the entire country, and eventually, the world. Purely local or regional solar will not work. The sun is not out for 24 hrs a day even when it's shining and storms reduce the efficiency even in the daytime. This requires getting power from farther away. The sun is always shinning somewhere. The grid has to be updated to make this work better, but that would be necessary regardless of the power source.
 
 
+3 # Questions, questions 2018-09-02 18:19
One big problem with creating and using a "supergrid" (besides the huge cost and land impact) is that much of the power is lost over long distances. I've heard it can amount to as much as 40% of the generation, though tech improvements (notably using high-voltage DC current lines) are probably bringing that down.

One key rule of renewable/susta inable energy is simply "don't put all your eggs in one basket." I'd prefer to see much more emphasis on offshore wind - which will be coming to the S. shore of MA on an industrial scale (1-2 gigawatts) in the next five years or so - and can more easily be sited closer to the existing grid and population centers. And the wind is always blowing somewhere (even on the same continent/time zone...).

Mainstream media has largely been missing the boat (literally!) on this hugely promising energy source, but once they build it - Vineyard Wind farm, for starters - they will come...
 
 
+4 # DudeistPriest 2018-09-02 21:07
Good! We desperately need them. Build more! Faster! We have to kick our fossil fuel habit. It will kill us, and there is no Methadone for an oil jones.