Economies of Scale Spur Solar’s Expansion

Large-scale solar seems to be just getting into its stride and already it’s heading along at an eye-wateringly quick pace. Only a few short years ago record-breaking installations were of a few megawatts. Nowadays they are measured in the tens and even hundreds of megawatts and just how long can it be – with the current headlong rush – before we are talking about gigawatt-scale power purchase agreements and associated installations.

If this sort of development doesn’t bring economy of scale, it’s hard to imagine what else will. And economy of scale has always been held as one of the major milestones of the solar industry, akin to boosting low-cost module efficiency to over 30 percent or securing an equitable and economically viable long-term carbon price for renewable and all other forms of generation. At one time all these goals seemed almost impossibly far from reach, each like some legendary and mythical grail. Now, at last, come the economies of scale.

Whether in response to rising power prices, market volatility, utility renewable portfolio requirements or other policy-backed measures — whatever the reasons, and there are many — the utility-scale solar company has, it seems, emerged onto the global energy stage.

Were it needed, evidence of this evolution comes from trade group the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), for instance. In its latest analysis, which ranks the key players in the utility solar sector of the U.S., SEPA reports a mixed portfolio of development. For example, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) installed 157 MW in 2010, giving it the top slot in the rankings, but around two thirds of its portfolio — more than 100 MW – was from distributed, consumer-scale PV projects, with more than 10,000 projects. In contrast, Florida Power and Light ranked second, having installed 87 MW but almost exclusively from two large-scale and utility-owned projects — a 10-MW PV plant at the Kennedy Space Center in collaboration with NASA and a 75-MW hybrid CSP installation at a gas-fired combined-cycle power plant.

Economy of scale is of course just one of the mechanisms that can be used to reduce system costs. As solar system technology reaches the nirvana of grid parity, what will be written in the next chapters of solar power’s evolution? 

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