Mainstream utility generation ‘trending’ in the PV sector

Utility-scale applications have doubled in a year to 12GW, while growth in other parts of the PV sector has slowed. Philip Wolfe, whose book on solar power stations was published recently, explains why these applications will continue to march on.

Sarnia Solar Park in Ontaria, Canada. Courtesy: First Solar

Sarnia Solar Park in Ontaria, Canada. Courtesy: First Solar

Solar power has been the fastest growing source of electricity generation over the last decade. This advance was stimulated initially by strong and coherent incentives, particularly Feed-in Tariffs in Germany and other parts of Europe. But even as these measures have recently faced turmoil, the market has continued to advance, stimulated by costs which have halved in the last year. As grid parity approaches, utility-scale applications are attracting mainstream investment from banks, pension funds and even Warren Buffett.

Of course much of PV’s early progress was in rooftop and decentralised systems where photovoltaics offers unique advantages. However, solar power has also proved its ability to deliver electricity at the utility scale; and my book addresses that sector of the market, focusing mainly on installations of 10MW and above. Utility-scale applications represented over 20% of the PV market in 2012, and this is likely to be substantially higher again in 2013. In just six years, global capacity of these large-scale solar installations has risen to over 12GW, maybe three times the capacity of offshore wind, for example.

The utility-scale market was at first stimulated by feed-in tariffs, particularly in Germany and Spain. Until 2010 Europe held over 70% of the world market, with much of the balance in North America. The last two years, however, have seen significant growth under the Clean Development Mechanism, particularly from China and India. Europe’s share fell below 40% in 2012, and will be much lower this year, as China and the USA race ahead.

The largest individual solar park now operating is the Agua Caliente Solar Project in South West Arizona, partly owned by Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy, which feeds power into Southern California. So far over 250MW are complete and connected, but the plant is still being built and will have an eventual capacity over 300MW. Plants up to 600MW planned capacity have also started construction in California.

In some places solar power stations are built in clusters, such as the Charanka Solar Park in India with 17 separate plants co-located on the same site. The largest such cluster is in the desert near Golmud, China with over 500MW of combined capacity, including one plant of 200MW. Europe’s largest installation at Neuhardenberg in Brandenburg Germany is also a cluster of 11 solar power plants.

"Solar Photovoltaic Projects in the Mainstream Power Market" by Philip Wolfe

“Solar Photovoltaic Projects in the Mainstream Power Market” by Philip Wolfe

Solar photovoltaic projects in the mainstream energy market was published by Routledge in October and profiles of some landmark projects including one of the ½ gigawatt power stations now being installed in California.

The first part of the book evaluates the project development process from site selection through design, construction and commissioning to operations and maintenance. While touching on the relevant technological considerations, the book is aimed more at project developers, financiers, legislators and professionals, rather than engineers and scientists.

The second part of the book looks at the commercial, operational, technical and legislative risks associated with project development. It also describes the transition from the historical incentive-based era, through grid parity, to solar power’s participation in the unsubsidised competitive market.

Because the sector continues developing so fast, the book is linked to an online resource at, where about 1,000 solar power stations are shown on frequently updated maps. The website also assesses statistics on sunlight levels, electricity prices and carbon intensity to show where large-scale PV is most applicable.