3 Common Misperceptions About Utility Scale Renewable Energy

In conversations about utility scale renewable energy, I’m consistently running into the same three misperceptions.

#1: Renewable energy requires new transmission.When utilities and policy makers think large scale renewable energy,they think first about wind and concentrating solar thermal. Forutility scale generation, both technologies have had a head startversus solar PV (and, therefore, are more top-of-mind). But bothtechnologies require large central station generation plants — far, faraway from population centers — driving significant dollars, resourcesand time to build new transmission to move the electricity from whereits generated to where it is consumed.

#2: Solar PV doesn’t scale. When utilities andpolicy makers hear the term distributed generation, they thinksmall-scale residential rooftop and conclude that solar PV doesn’tscale and therefore cannot be a meaningful answer to an overall energysolution.

#3: Solar PV is cost prohibitive. Most 3rd partyanalyses are based on yesterday’s cost curves. They don’t reflecttoday’s costs and certainly don’t bake in the predictable, forwardlooking cost declines inherent in the fundamentals of the technology.

But if perception is reality, the solar PV industry needs to do afar better job of addressing these misnomers. The reality is verydifferent. Solar PV, when deployed in multiple 10-20MW utility scaleground-mounted installations at distribution level, near substations,is a scalable, cost-effective answer that largely avoids the high cost,arduous permitting and major hassle of building new transmission acrosspeoples’ land to far-away places.

Take a June 2009 report prepared by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that focused on an implementation analysis to meet the 33% RPS target.The Commission concluded that a base case implementation, predicated onsignificant quantities of wind and solar thermal, would require 7additional major transmission lines at a cost of $12 billion, whileadding extra 5+ years (and therefore risk) to overall projecttimelines. In an October, 2009 Atlantic Monthly article, entitled "The California Experiment",Michael Peevey, President of the CPUC, suggests that transmission isthe biggest constraint to meeting the state’s RPS goals. However, theauthor, Ron Brownstein, quips that the likelihood of the requiredtransmission getting built is "even lower than the likelihood that LosAngeles will ban botox." In contrast and in the same report, theCommission also analyzed the impact of deploying large amounts ofdistributed generation (20MW farms in rural areas, near existingsubstations) and concluded that 2/3 of that transmission ($8B of the$12B) would not be required. Further, if installed costs for solar PVwere $3.08/Wp(dc), then the overall cost of meeting the 33% RPS wouldbe ~$2 billion LESS under the high distributed generation case than thebase case.

And guess what, a fab2farm™ecosystem based on Applied Materials’ SunFab manufacturing lineoptimizes manufacturing, balance-of-system costs, and financing to putthis ~$3.08 installed cost target within reach. Less transmission meansfaster implementation and higher project surety. Add the benefits oflocal jobs and economic development created by local solar modulemanufacturing and what’s not to like. Wholesale distributed generationcan scale, meet the required cost targets, and largely avoid the messof new transmission. California can keep its Botox, but it can do awaywith a significant amount of transmission currently believed to berequired. It’s a solar deployment model that merits a serious look.Check it out, http://www.fab2farm.com/index.htm.

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