Giant Solar PV Project Proposed for Former Farmland in Central California

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A colossal solar photovoltaic power-plant complex with up to 5,000 megawatts of peak production capacity

A colossal solar photovoltaic power-plant complex with up to 5,000 megawatts of peak production capacity — twice the size of any other solar-energy project currently proposed in the world — is under consideration near Fresno in central California.

The proposed power capacity would be sufficient to supply the annual electricity needs of as many as 1 million average California households. In the United States, only the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington would have a higher capacity rating for peak electrical production.

Reports in the Fresno Bee newspaper and on the Sierra2TheSea news service website have described the plans, which involve former farmland managed by the Westlands Water District.

The water district, the largest in the nation, has long been a focal point for environmental and water issues in the state’s central valley, one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions. In addition to considering a massive solar project, the district has signed a letter of intent to work with a local development group to identify district property that might be suitable for a large-scale nuclear complex with a 3,200-megawatt capacity.

Unlike some of the hundreds of big solar projects proposed for the Southwest’s deserts, this proposal has imprimaturs that suggest it is a serious undertaking. A Sierra Club official with a significant but low-key voice in the siting of renewable energy projects has been quoted as strongly supporting the plan. The state has recently designated the proposed site a Competitive Renewable Energy Zone.

For consumers interested in small-scale solar-electric systems, a proposal of this type is significant because of the role such a large project could have in helping to drive down the costs of solar equipment through manufacturing economies of scale.

A solar project of 5,000 megawatts would be about seven to eight times as large as all of the existing grid-tied solar PV installations throughout the state combined. It would require years to build and would far exceed the annual manufacturing capacity of any single solar-panel maker.

Three of the world’s largest solar panel manufacturers – First Solar Inc. of Tempe, Ariz., Suntech Power Holdings of China and Japan-based Sharp Solar – each have annual production capacities of about 1,000 megawatts.

The largest solar PV power plant now operating is a 60-megawatt system in Spain. The largest in the United States is a Florida installation with a capacity of 25 megawatts, and the largest in California has a peak rating of 21 megawatts.

Solar photovoltaic modules convert sunlight directly into electricity with no moving parts. A different technology, known as solar thermal, uses mirrors to generate steam that can turn turbines to generate electricity. A series of plants of this type in California’s Mojave Desert together have a peak capacity rating of about 354 megawatts and currently make up the largest solar power-plant complex in the world.

In optimal California locations, 5 megawatts of solar-electric capacity— generating only in the daytime — can produce electricity equivalent to the annual usage of about 1,000 average households. A complex of 5,000 megawatts would cover the yearly usage of about 1 million households.


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