Is Big Solar Dead?

With Friday’s cancellation of one of the biggest solar projects proposed for the California desert, the utility-scale solar boom of 2009 continues to falter. And analysts deep in the energy industry are taking notice.

One of the features of big, remote solar projects that industry envisioned covering the desert was the fact that such plants would have allowed utilities’ 20th century business model to continue without much change. Energy companies found that undeniably attractive.

But that scenario has been undercut, as long-time ReWire readers know, by plummeting prices for photovoltaic solar panels, which don’t need to be out in the desert to produce power — and which can be installed in small rooftop-sized arrays, making it much easier to install a kilowatt’s worth of capacity at a time rather than needing to get a multi-megawatt project financed, permitted, and built.

Partially as a result of photovoltaics undercutting the rest of the industry, the history of solar in the California desert in the last few years has been of one project after another being sold, backburnered, or even cancelled. Before Calico came Hidden Hills and Rio Mesa, Siberia and Sonoran West, Imperial Solar Two and Ridgecrest, and Blythe. Some of the projects may yet be built, sold to new buyers when their originators went under. Some are paper projects being held in reserve as a portfolio of fungible assets to be traded like Pokemon characters. And some like Calico, whose footprint was later declared a solar exclusion zone under the Interior Department’s Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, are probably completely dead.

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