Solar Power Soars to New Heights in California

, senior analyst, Clean Energy | December 11, 2014, 10:15 am EST
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Solar power in California continues to blaze ahead with record-setting developments and utilities ahead of schedule in meeting their targets for procuring renewable sources of electricity. So what’s next for renewable energy in the Golden State?

The largest operational solar plant in the world, the 550 MW Topaz Solar photovoltaic (PV) project, opened in November after three years of construction. The project, located in San Luis Obispo County, surpasses the 392 MW Ivanpah power tower (also in California) that went online in February. Topaz Solar is owned by MidAmerican Solar and will generate an average of 1,096 GWh of clean, renewable electricity—enough to power about 160,000 average California homes each year. If you want to see what the project looks like on Google Earth, check it out on UCS’s interactive map of online renewable energy projects in California.

Contruction at the Topaz Solar project in 2012. Photo credit: Sarah Swenty/USFWS

Construction at the Topaz Solar project in 2012. Photo credit: Sarah Swenty/USFWS

Projects like Topaz Solar, Ivanpah, and Desert Sunlight, another 550 MW PV plant scheduled to go online in Riverside County in 2015, are making a huge dent in our dependence on fossil-fueled electricity because of contracts signed years ago to comply with California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS). The RPS requires all utilities in the state to supply 33 percent of their electricity sales with renewable energy by 2020. At the end of 2013, California was relying on renewables for approximately 20 percent of its electricity needs, and about 2 percent of total generation came from solar. (Note that this does not count the 2,315 MW of solar PV installed on residential and commercial rooftops, which lowers the overall electricity demand for the state.)

Many of California’s utilities are ahead of schedule on their RPS requirements. Given that California can and should provide more than a third of its electricity needs from renewable sources in the future, people are wondering what’s next for the state in terms of clean energy policy. The path forward is still up in the air, but the California Public Utilities Commission recently signaled that they will begin a proceeding in early 2015 to consider whether to aim higher than the 33 percent renewable energy target.

A more ambitious renewable energy standard will help spur future investments in clean energy, helping to reduce carbon emissions and achieve California’s long-term climate goals. As illustrated by recent solar developments, California continues to be a leader in adding clean power to the grid. And when it comes to clean sources of energy, let’s aim for the sky.

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  • The solar surge in California is good. It just makes good sense to use solar energy. I am hoping that with California being a leader in solar that they will put some dollars into energy storage. We need to make some gains in that area. Good going CA!

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  • Linda Gaines

    What are they using for back-up or storage? What is the impact on the birds?

    • Laura Wisland

      Hi Linda,

      Thanks for reading the blog. The project is grid connected, so its generation will be complemented by other generators in the system. It’s not necessary for each project be co-located with storage, although doing so is a benefit to the grid. And, we’ve been advocating that in the future, the state should be focusing on developing more energy efficiency, demand response, and storage to support renewables in the future instead of relying on natural gas.

      As for the birds, I can’t speak specifically to that issue because I was not involved in any of the environmental impact assessments, but since it’s a PV project, I would suspect that avian impacts are much lower than what you might expect in a power tower project. The final Environmental Impact Statement can be accessed by clicking the link below, and it looks like wildlife issues begin in section 3.9.

      http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/Topaz-FEIS-Volume-I-PDF-Version.pdf

      • Linda Gaines

        Thanks, Laura. I’m still concerned about the potential mismatch, say on a summer night when AC loads are high and the sun isn’t shining. You might need natural gas-fired peakers at such times, increasing overall costs of power supply.