Despite millions in subsidies and government loans, solar power is projected to remain a tiny portion of overall electricity generation in the U.S., according to Energy Department figures.
Utility-scale solar power generation is projected to increase in 2015, but it will still make up only 0.6 percent of total U.S. electricity generation, according to the Energy Information Administration. Utility-scale solar has more than doubled in 2013 and EIA expects solar capacity will nearly double again in 2015.
Federal, state and local subsidy regimes and green energy mandates have helped the solar industry grow in the last few years. In the third quarter of 2014 alone 1,354 megawatts of photovoltaic (PV) solar power capacity was installed, a 41 percent leap over the same time period in 2013.
There is now 16 gigawatts of operating PV solar capacity in the U.S., according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The group says that 36 percent of the new generating capacity that came online in 2014 has come from solar.
Most of the growth in solar comes from the PV market, SEIA reports. But concentrated solar generation saw huge growth earlier this year when the Ivanpah solar facility in Southern California finally came online.
Ivanpah, the world’s largest concentrated solar plant, uses 173,500 heliostat mirrors to reflect sunlight onto centralized towers. The sunlight heats up water in the towers which turns into steam to generate electricity.
The project is co-owned by Google, NRG Energy and BrightSource Energy and was given a $1.6 billion loan by the Obama administration in an effort to incentivize more utility-scale solar projects.
“It’s going to put about 1,000 people to work building a state-of-the-art facility. And when it’s complete, it will turn sunlight into the energy that will power up to 140,000 homes,” President Obama said.
But Ivanpah has not lived up to its expectations. Not even a year after it began operations, the project’s owners have asked the federal government for a $539 million grant to help pay back its federal loan.
Apparently, Ivanpah has only been generating about one-quarter of the energy it was said it could produce. Why? Because the sun hasn’t been shining as much as studies predicted it would.
Because of the lack of sun, the plant has had to increase its use of natural gas to heat up its water towers. Natural gas is used to prime the steam boilers before the panels come online so the plant can quickly generate power. Gas is also used to keep power going during times of intermittent sunshine.
“This is an attempt by very large cash generating companies that have billions on their balance sheet to get a federal bailout, i.e. a bailout from us — the taxpayer for their pet project,” Reason Foundation vice president Julian Morris told Fox News. “It’s actually rather obscene.”
Despite Ivanpah’s problems it has still been named the “2014 Renewable Energy Project of the Year” by Renewable Energy World — a green energy news publication.
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