California is opening another major, federally backed solar power plant in the Mojave Desert on Monday in a rush to meet the state’s green energy mandate.
Obama administration officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, are slated to dedicate the Desert Sunlight solar plant Monday. The project has been hailed by the administration as a landmark achievement for solar power. The Energy Department celebrated the news, crediting itself for the major strides made in solar power development.
“When most Americans think of solar, they probably picture solar panels on the roofs of homes and businesses,” said Peter Davidson, the head of the DOE loan program office — the same office that gave millions to Solyndra. “And while residential and commercial solar installations provide onsite electricity, utility-scale projects sell electricity to the grid the same as a coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plant.”
Desert Sunlight got nearly $1.5 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama administration to boost the use of utility-scale solar projects in the desert. The DOE funded the first five such projects over 100 megawatts in the country.
Desert Sunlight is the second major solar plant to open in the last couple of years. Before that, the Obama administration and California officials christened the Ivanpah solar plant. Unlike Desert Sunlight, which will use photovoltaic panels, Ivanpah uses 175,000 large mirrors, or heliostats, to focus sunlight on central towers containing water boilers. Sunlight turns the water into steam and creates electricity.
Despite the optimism over Ivanpah, the plant has hit hard times because the desert isn’t getting as much sun as predicted by project developers. Last year, Ivanpah operators asked for a $539 million federal grant to help pay off its $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee.
Under President Obama solar energy use has exploded. In fact, the 550 megawatt Desert Sunlight solar plant has four times more power capacity than the entire solar industry was predicted to have by experts just seven years ago.
Why the boom in solar energy? The DOE says it’s in part because of the $4.6 billion spent under Obama on utility-scale solar farms which have driven up supply. Energy companies can also get a 30 percent investment tax credit for building solar farms that was extended to 2016. This, combined with state mandates that a growing percentage of energy come from sources like wind and solar, has artificially created huge demand for solar panels.
But Obama is not just boosting solar for economic reasons, he’s also pushing green energy as part of his plan to tackle global warming. Tax credits for solar and wind energy are key policies needed to get energy companies to dump fossil fuels and go green.
While large loans to solar energy companies stopped after the media reported the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the administration has been pushing through relatively smaller spending programs to boost solar use and research to drive down solar technology costs.
Last year, the DOE announced it was spending $53 million on 40 projects aimed at bringing down the costs of solar energy.
“The projects announced today will help the U.S. solar energy industry continue to grow, ensuring America can capitalize on its vast renewable energy sources, cut carbon pollution, and continue to lead in the world in clean energy innovation,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement.
But even with government funding, solar power is still only a small fraction of the U.S. energy portfolio. The DOE itself predicts that solar energy will only generate 0.7 percent of the country’s electricity in 2016.