Jul 30, 2010

Solar Power, Is it the Key?

Columbus Dispatch, July 20th

From the ground, the 80 acres of solar panels seem to go on forever, arranged in rows like the cornfield that used to be here.   The project was completed last month in Wyandot County, OH. At 12 megawatts, build by American Municipal Power (AMP) of Columbus, it is by far the largest of its kind in Ohio history.

The nonprofit utility said it will build capacity of 300 megawatts in a series of projects across several states and over several years, with plans to break ground on the first segment this year. Marc Gerken, AMP's chief executive, argues that the plan makes sense for the municipal utilities that his company serves. He sees solar power as "peak" capacity, which means it would be relied upon for the hottest months of summer, when power demand is at its highest and the sun is shining brightest. That would cover electricity needs that otherwise would be met by peaking plants, which are typically gas-fired power plants that are used for only brief periods each year.  Another consideration is the possibility of federal environmental rules that would increase the costs of traditional power sources such as coal. If the older sources become more expensive, renewable sources become more attractive, he said.

The country had 429 megawatts of solar power installed last year, according to preliminary figures from the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. Of that total, 85 percent was from small systems installed on homes and businesses. Only 15 percent, or 66 megawatts, was from utility companies.  A lot of announcements don't actually turn out," said Ken Zweibel, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute. He estimates that 300 megawatts of solar power would cost more than $1 billion to build.

The industry has had a series of big projects announced, scheduled to be built in the next five years. The largest is a 550-megawatt project being developed in California for use by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Known as the Topaz Solar Farm, the array will cover about 10 square miles in a part of the country that has some of the country's most- abundant sunlight. The developers hope to be done by 2014.

Three other projects would be 300 megawatts each: two in California and one in New Mexico. Each is scheduled to be complete by 2015, according to the Solar Electric Power Association, another trade group.

To put it in perspective, Cook Nuclear Plant is approximately 2200-megawatts. So to replace our two unit site, it would take 40 square miles of solar arrays.

Why Ohio? Two years ago, Governor Strickland signed Senate Bill 221, a measure that requires utilities to produce 25 percent of their electricity from so-called advanced sources by 2025. Solar power was the only energy source that got its own piece of the pie in the law. Solar must compose 0.5 percent of overall electricity by 2025, which translates to roughly 400 megawatts. Notably, the law applies only to investor-owned utilities, a group that includes American Electric Power, FirstEnergy, Duke Energy and Dayton Power and Light. Rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities, such as AMP's clients, are exempt.

So far, AEP has made the largest investment in meeting the requirement. The Columbus-based utility helped develop the Wyandot project and has a contract to buy all the power produced there. AEP now has enough solar capacity to meet the benchmarks for 2010 through 2012. To meet subsequent goals, AEP plans to commission a series of solar arrays that would produce about 12 megawatts each. The next one likely will be announced next year.


  1. But the beauty of solar energy is that the arrays can be placed virtually anywhere there is unused space exposed to the sun- rooftops, parking lots, etc. The arrays don't have to be installed contiguously. This seems like a waste of a good cornfield!

  2. Thanks, Ginger. I was going to mention a few of those points too. And the technology continues to improve.

  3. The main problem with solar energy is that, at current consumer electricity pricing, these multi-megawatt installations will never generate enough power to even pay for their own construction costs, not to mention ongoing maintenance and operations costs. Unless there is a signifgicant breakthrough in solar panel efficiency, or the market price of electricity almost triples, these installations are basically black holes into which we funnel taxpayers' money.

  4. You would be amazed by how many companies around here in just the last three months have installed these solar panels around their huge buildings , in the unused land surrounding them. It's very nice to see!!!

  5. I agree with Ginger, The beauty of solar is that the panels can go anywhere. If we just put them on everyone's rooftops, we could generate a lot of electricity. Paul may have a point, but I don;'t think it's a major one. We can't hope to improve this technology unless we actively pursue it. The reason it is made to be ineffective, or we are told it is ineffective, is because the fuel source is totally free and available to all. That's usually a deal breaker for those corporate types who want us all addicted to something we have to buy. We've seen no major improvements in solar technology in 40 years because we've been too busy spending money on our other experiments, like trying to fill the Gulf of Mexico with oil...

  6. Nice post Ken. :)

    Solar is only one solution we need to be expanding. We need to diversify. If eco energy production is to be viable it needs to benefit everyone, everywhere. I'd like to see that bundled with enhanced nuclear plant production.

    I agree with Paul that the costs are extreme, but most of that is artificial, a circumstance created by our continued exclusive support/reliance on fossil fuels.


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