Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is focusing his efforts on renewable energy projects to be developed on public lands (managed by the Bureau of Land Management). One specific focus is utilizing large desert lands for utility-scale solar plants. Utility-scale solar obviously refers to large power plants or solar farms in which power is generated for and supplied to many. Utility companies have mostly stayed out of the picture until recently.
There are two different categories of solar energy: Solar thermal and photovoltaic cells.
Simply put, with solar thermal, the sun heats a fluid which produces steam, and the steam is used to power an electric generator. In utility-scale projects, for instance, mirrors may be used to concentrate the sunlight more acutely to generate heat.
In photovoltaic cell technology (usually referred to as “PV”), sunlight hits a product (such as a solar panel or solar film) and directly changes the sunlight to electricity or electric current. The device is a semi-conductor cell. Photovoltaic means “concerned with or producing electric current or voltage when exposed to light or radiant energy.”
Examples of small PV uses include powering a flashlight, garden lights, a small waterfall or a calculator; examples of midsize uses would be to power a home or part of a home; examples of large scale uses would be power plants.
The large scale uses are newer and developing. Technologies are advancing to allow this and more general interest as well as governmental focus is changing the utility-scale world slowly. It is, though, unchartered territory. As reported by Renewable Energy World, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has a project in development with Topaz Solar Farms that could begin power delivery in a few years (as early as 2011, with full operations anticipated by 2013).
This project could bring an estimated 1.1 million megawatts. Other projects were signed with PG&E to develop utility-scale PV projects in California and Nevada, but they are also pursuing solar thermal power as well. Projects are under study or in development in Florida, Arizona, and even New Jersey. Interior Secretary Salazar has discussed “fast track” projects for 2010, which include 14 solar energy projects on U.S. public lands. As of January 2010, there were 128 applications to the Bureau of Land Management for solar utility scale projects.
Transmission capacity will also have to be addressed. As utility projects are developed in remote desert areas, new transmission capacity to population centers will be required. Salazar said in an early 2010 Senate testimony that the Department of Interior has already designated more than 5,000 miles of transmission corridors on lands its manages and is handling right-of-way applications on other lands.
Solar energy is a free and available source of energy, with certain U.S. areas having the right conditions for utility-scale application; solar is a clean and renewable technology; and as the U.S. worries about petroleum-based energy issues, a long-term strategy of development is needed on ALL sources of energy, including utility-scale solar.
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