California led the nation in new solar power capacity last year, and new data show it was the first state to get more than 5 percent of its annual electricity generation from large-scale solar projects producing more than one megawatt of power.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2014 utility-scale solar projects in California generated more than three times the output of the second-highest state, Arizona, and more than all other states combined. Several extremely large plants led the way in what was a bumper year for solar in California, including two 550 megawatt solar photovoltaic plants, Topaz and Desert Sunlight, and the 377 MW Ivanpah and 250 MW Genesis solar thermal plants.
California added about 3,550 MW of new solar in 2014, according to a recent report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, a number that accounts for more than half of the 6,200 MW added across the country. Of these 3,550 MW, more than half — some 1,900 MW — came from utility-scale projects.
California may be leading the trend, but solar made headway across the U.S. in 2014. Around a third of all new electricity generating capacity in the U.S. came from solar last year, making solar second only to natural gas, which made up 42 percent of new capacity. Wind accounted for 23 percent of the mix and coal came in with less than one percent.
The top three states in large-scale solar generation in 2014 — California, Arizona, and Nevada — are some of the most sun-drenched in the country, but their progressive renewable energy policies also played a major role in the solar build-out. As EIA reports, nine out of the top 10 states have Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), including New Jersey and Massachusetts — smaller states not known for their solar potential.
In 2014, California got 22 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables, putting it on track to reach its RPS requirement that electricity providers get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. State leaders like Democratic Governor Jerry Brown are already looking beyond this target: Brown recently said he wants California to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.
This boost in non-hydropower renewables could not come at a better moment for California, as the ongoing drought in the state caused electricity from hydropower to plummet 46 percent last year compared to the five-year average. For the first time ever, wind power generation surpassed hydro generation in the state last year during February and March.
While utility-scale solar projects are currently proliferating across interior California, there are ecological questions pertaining to their environmental impact. As state and federal groups try and hash out an expansive new plan for how to best site solar and other renewables in the California desert, a new study has found that California’s already developed areas could generate enough solar power to cover the state’s energy needs. Conducted by Stanford researchers and published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study found that the more than 12,000 square miles of human-developed landscape in the state could generate enough solar power to meet demand three to five times over.
As reported by Chris Clarke for KCET in California, the study also showed that there’s enough “appropriate developed space” in California to site concentrating solar plants, which store energy as heat, to meet the state’s total needs almost three times over — thus refuting a major criticism of photovoltaic solar’s inability to store power for use when the sun isn’t out.
Renewable energy companies, energy storage outfits, grid operators, and utilities are experimenting with a number of ways to improve renewable energy storage, employing everything from super-sized batteries to compressed air, as recently reported in the Los Angeles Times. The Times reports that officials in the western U.S. are working to improve cooperation among grid operators so that renewable power can be produced and sold more effectively, thus minimizing unused renewable potential and limiting fossil fuel-power production. State regulators are also funding energy storage projects and setting storage targets for utilities.