Large-scale solar PV a big toolbox of miracles

Beginning Feb. 12, a four-day Solar Power-Gen conference was held at San Diego’s Convention Center. Attended primarily by those deeply involved in producing and deploying solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar-thermal technologies used to produce electricity, this wonderfully informative conference plumbed some of the intricate financial and technical realities of constructing, interconnecting, operating, and maintaining large-scale solar facilities.

The organizers, PennWell Corp. and, whose managing editor is Jennifer Runyon, did a tremendous job of combining fascinating topics with a deep bench of excellent speakers, many from top-tier companies with broad reach.

Suffice it to say that merely listing the topics and speakers would entirely fill this column.

That large-scale solar facilities can serve as an abundant energy resource was strongly enforced by the candid and inspired views of the Feb. 13 keynote speakers, including local leaders Jim Waring, executive chairman of CleanTech San Diego; Matt Burkhart, San Diego Gas & Electric’s vice president of electric and fuel procurement; and Clark Crawford, Soitec’s vice president of sale and business development, USA.

Note that Soitec’s triple-junction solar C-PV (concentrating photovoltaic) technology is extraordinary in its ability to effectively extract energy from sunlight and convert it directly into industrial-grade electricity, a feat essentially impossible with any fossil fuel.

Natural inference suggests that by rapidly employing a proper approach we can achieve a world of astonishingly plentiful energy, low greenhouse gas emissions and a broadly improving environment. Si, se puede!!

That ebullient perspective is, however, currently immersed in the murky regulatory mosaic figuratively clouding our domestic skies and slowing our progress to a relative crawl.

Contrasts abound: miraculous solar PV technology stands ready, willing and able, but the body politic remains weak; some deft detractors ask the public to imagine large-scale solar power as a group of expensive, feckless toys, while the reality is that of a toolbox filled with relatively low-cost, powerful tools ready to serve all humanity.

Indeed, there is inherent confusion associated with the ubiquitous and amorphous word “solar.”

Time spent standardizing and teaching the public a clear lingua franca for solar energy and its associated principles would pay dividends.

While the conference catered to the needs of those participating directly in an intricate solar PV industry, some of the broader takeaways include prices for solar PV panels are falling, China’s influence is expanding rapidly, the productive capacity of solar PV and related technologies are now excellent and improving, and large-scale solar PV is now seen as a practical and competitive part of any growing or developing nation’s energy portfolio.

This latter point is particularly important as it reduces greenhouse gas emissions and with it, future global warming.

Think sun-drenched Saudi Arabia. Sunny, oil-exporting nations dependent upon fossil fuels for generating electricity offer a potentially growing and mutually profitable market for solar PV.

Large-scale solar PV in oil-rich nations can act as a daytime substitute for oil-powered electrical generators. When solar PV panel and ancillary equipment prices -- which are dropping almost daily -- are arbitraged against the high and rising open-market price of export oil, such oil-derived generator fuels can be replaced during daylight hours by large-scale solar to achieve an export profit.

Every barrel sent into the international oil markets instead of domestically consumed for electricity is revenue which can then be reinvested in more solar PV generating capacity, which itself will last and work for decades.

In effect, every kilowatt of solar PV generating capacity deployed translates into two long-term streams of cash flow: oil for sale internationally, and higher profit or lower priced electricity for sale domestically.

Most gratifying is the reality that large-scale solar PV generating facilities (50-550 megawatts), which are capable of being well managed, partially dispatched, and produce large amounts of excellent quality electricity, when tied into higher voltage transmission systems, can support and stabilize the distribution grid within properly sized “load balancing units.”

With energy storage capabilities, they can do even more. Managed and deployed correctly, this miraculous technology has astonishing potential going forward.

Adequate energy on the grid, in turn, allows some increase in small-scale solar-on-rooftop PV installations.

Absent an adequate amount of stable grid energy, at even relatively low deployment levels, small solar PV installations on rooftops, which most often act independently “behind the meter,” threaten grid stability.

Thus, large-scale solar PV and well managed transmission capabilities within expanded balancing units may enable long-term expansion in the use of solar rooftop PV.

Finally, in my view, by shifting and managing the period when pluggable hybrid vehicles store electricity from late-night hours to daylight hours during which electricity is generated by large-scale solar PV, society can doubly arbitrage the high cost of gasoline against an emissions-free electricity source.

In effect, we burn daylight at both ends. To borrow from “First Fig,” Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “it gives a lovely light” when we combine low-emission generation with lower-cost electrified transportation, an opportunity now entirely within our grasp using large-scale solar PV.

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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