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Following the Sun

Solar Panel Collecting Sun Energy

Throughout the past 10 years, solar technology has increasingly made its presence — and value — known and continues to do so with each passing year. As the most abundant energy resource, solar is close to becoming cost-competitive with its fossil fuel counterparts. And it’s cleaner and more earth-friendly, too.

“Solar technology has dropped in price dramatically over the last decade,” says Matt Brinkman, solar business unit manager in the Energy Group at Burns & McDonnell. “The elusive Holy Grail is being able to install fixed-tilt solar power for under $1 per watt, and we are really close to doing that on utility-scale solar. It’s already competitive with retail electricity costs in some areas and is getting more competitive with wholesale power every day.”

The numerous benefits of solar, including job creation, have increased demand, and such benefits are driving an influx of engineer-procure-construct (EPC) projects. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the country saw 1,665 MW of solar photovoltaics (PV) installed in the first quarter of this year — more than coal, natural gas and nuclear combined — totaling 29.3 GW of total installed capacity to date. More than 1 million solar operating installations are powering close to 6 million homes, plus thousands of K-12 schools and retail stores, in America. With the progress that solar is making, the industry is projected to double in size by the end of the year.

Another push for solar stems from each state’s renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and goals. With more than 13,000 MW of solar energy installed, California is leading the progressive movement with an aggressive RPS of 33 percent of retail electrical sales from renewable power by 2020, increasing to 50 percent by 2030. The state’s more than 528,000 solar projects speak to the future — and importance — of solar technology. Another industry driver is Nevada, where the percentage of renewable energy is poised to increase every two years until reaching 25 percent in 2025.

Arizona, with more than 2,300 MW of installed solar capacity, is following suit, with an RPS goal of 15 percent by 2025, noting that 30 percent of the renewable energy must come from distributed energy technologies.

Texas also is in the solar spotlight. After researching where a bulk of the state’s power will come from between 2017 and 2031 using seven different scenarios, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas recently reported its findings: Solar emerged as the clear economic winner in all scenarios, so it’s predicted that no other power plant type will be built in the state in the foreseeable future.

A noteworthy example of California’s progressive solar movement, Solar Star is a 579-MW photovoltaic project on 3,200 acres within California’s Antelope Valley on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Retained by MidAmerican Energy to act as owner’s engineer, Burns & McDonnell provided technical reviews, construction and substation monitoring, and performance testing support, among other services. With 1.72 million panels, the plant can distribute enough power for about 255,000 homes. 

“This location is near the Whirlwind Substation — which is used for all of the wind turbines on the mountain ranges surrounding the Antelope Valley — but there’s just as much solar energy being built into the substation as well,” says Steven Peterson, a department manager in the Energy Group at Burns & McDonnell in Phoenix. “This valley is unique in that it probably has more than 3 GW of solar and wind energy now.”

Completed in June 2015, Solar Star was the first to implement large-scale tracker technology and is one of the largest photovoltaic power projects in the world. 

Rivaling Solar Star’s magnitude is Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar thermal power tower facility that covers 3,500 acres of public desert land. A 377-MW plant in Nipton, California, Ivanpah features 170,000 heliostats (a pair of garage door-sized mirrors fixed to a metal pole) in its three-unit power system, doubling the world’s existing solar thermal capacity. Retained by NRG Energy, Burns & McDonnell provided owner’s engineering services on the $2.3 billion project.

“The cool thing about Ivanpah is that the solar field produces power by converting sunlight into steam,” says Jeff DeWitt, Burns & McDonnell division manager of the Energy Group in Denver. “At the bottom of each tower is basically a full power plant, and each heliostat has a program to track the sun’s rays. It’s tremendously sophisticated equipment.”

Upon its completion, Ivanpah was responsible for creating 2,100 construction jobs and reduced water usage by more than 90 percent over competing solar thermal technologies. During its 30-year life cycle, it’s projected to save the planet from 13.5 million tons of potential carbon monoxide emissions. 

“We’ve been doing solar for many years, but this is the biggest, baddest production facility in the world,” DeWitt says.

As the RPS amounts are satisfied, industry professionals anticipate the larger design-build projects to decrease; industry standard seems to be solar power plants ranging from 20 to 100 MW.
Burns & McDonnell is currently working on an EPC project for Tampa Electric in Florida. Known as Big Bend Solar, the 25-MW plant has a projected completion date of May 2017. 

With each PV power plant that goes up, solar technology continues its proven track record as one of the most viable energy options on the market. With the amount of invested interest in solar technology, the future certainly looks bright. 

“My client said it best about the solar industry: ‘We need to have someone spill coffee on it,’ discover something by mistake that revolutionizes an industry, much like Teflon,” DeWitt says. “Our next big ‘ah ha’ moment will be when we figure out how to increase collection efficiency (speaking of PV panels), and we double or triple it. That’s our coffee spill. We’ve really refined the pieces and parts that have gone into manufacturing and installing systems; the step change will come from the technology itself.”

What’s the Backup Plan?

“Solar technology isn’t on demand,” DeWitt says, “and in America, we’re an on-demand society.”

So when clouds move in, what is a solar plant to do?

“One of the challenges in California and nationwide is that as the percentage of renewables grows, it puts a strain on the grid because it’s not dispatchable,” Peterson says. “The grid has to respond to the variable energy sources, and that makes it a difficult management challenge. We have to either find a way to store it and manage it that way, or build small, natural gas plants that fill in the gaps.”

Learn more about solar advancements and options

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