Are Solar Power Towers Doomed in California?

It used to be the future of solar. From the time the 10-megawatt Solar One project rose east of Barstow in 1981, renewable energy advocates imagined that California’s solar future would look a lot like Solar One, a tower with a bright white boiler on top, illuminated by sunlight reflected from more than 1,700 large mirrors arranged in concentric circles around the tower’s base.

Now, California generates more solar electricity than at any point in its history. With a new mandate that the state get half its electrical power from renewables by the end of 2030, solar’s role in California is only going to get bigger. And yet solar power tower technology seems to be languishing. Of 11,535 megawatts of solar generating capacity installed in the state by the end of last year, solar power towers account for just 397 megawatts: about three percent of the state’s solar.

Things have turned so sour for solar power tower technology that in August, the company behind the only power tower project being proposed for the state of California announced it wants to build the plant using a different technology. That means there are no new solar tower plants on the drawing board for California. How did this once-popular technology fall on such hard times?

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