Matt Wald Changes His Tune on Big Centralized Solar Plant

A little over three years ago, NY Times writer Matt Wald was singing the praises of the Sunrise Powerlink, claiming the now-approved HV transmission line would bring green power from big solar farms in the Mojave Desert to power hungry cities on California’s coast.  (Yeah, I know, it all sounds too familiar, resource rich colonies feeding “power hungry” coastal population centers.)

Well, now one of those huge new solar power plants just went on line.  What did Mr. Wald have to say about it?

The Ivanpah solar power plant stretches over more than five square miles of the Mojave Desert. Almost 350,000 mirrors the size of garage doors tilt toward the sun with an ability to energize 140,000 homes. The plant, which took almost four years and thousands of workers assembling millions of parts to complete, officially opened on Thursday, the first electric generator of its kind.

It could also be the last.

Since the project began, the price of rival technologies has plummeted, incentives have begun to disappear and the appetite among investors for mammoth solar farms has waned. Although several large, new projects have been coming online in recent months — many in the last quarter of 2013 — experts say fewer are beginning construction and not all of those under development will be completed.

“I don’t think that we’re going to see large-scale solar thermal plants popping up, five at a time, every year in the U.S. in the long-term — it’s just not the way it’s going to work,” said Matthew Feinstein, a senior analyst at Lux Research.

“Companies that are supplying these systems have questionable futures. There’s other prospects for renewables and for solar that look a lot better than this particular solution,” he said, including rooftop solar systems that are being installed one by one on businesses and homes. [emphasis mine]

Oops.  Politically connected corporate mouthpieces from BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google convinced the Obama administration to provide $1.6 billion in loan guarantees for the Ivanpah project.  It looks like they are going to need it.  Like the few big coal plants that have reached completion recently, these kinds of big centralized solar thermal plants are obsolete before they are built.

Too bad Congress refuses to even consider passing a national renewable portfolio standard new financing programs for thousands of small businesses and homeowners to create massive new investment in decentralized small scale solar power generation.  $1.6 billion in that program would have resulted in real sustainable renewable power generation capacity.

As Mr. Wald is wont to do, he continues to wring his hands about intermittent renewable power and the whining of grid operators.  What he doesn’t mention in his story is that widely dispersed, small scale solar generators put a lot less stress on the grid, because they are so spread out geographically.  Wide dispersal of small solar and wind generators naturally evens out disparities in sun and wind, because they are spread over such large areas.

Centralized renewable systems generate concentrated electricity bumps when they are on, and little or nothing when they are off.  In that respect, they replicate all the unreliable, non-resilient aspects of centralized fossil fuel plants.

2 thoughts on “Matt Wald Changes His Tune on Big Centralized Solar Plant

  1. “Too bad Congress refuses to even consider passing a national renewable portfolio standard to create massive new investment in decentralized small scale solar power generation.” You’re kidding, right? A national renewable portfolio standard would only create MORE centralized renewables and transmission, not less.

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