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Utilities Test Adding Renewables To Dirty Power Plants

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One of the ways in which we will transition from dirty energy sources to clean energy sources is by first modifying the dirty energy infrastructure to accommodate clean energy infrastructure – the addition of renewable energy parts to dirty energy plants.  Case in point: the world’s 2nd largest solar plant is being added onto the U.S.’s largest fossil fuel plant.

Across 500 acres north of West Palm Beach, the FPL Group utility is assembling a life-size Erector Set of 190,000 shimmering mirrors and thousands of steel pylons that stretch as far as the eye can see. When it is completed by the end of the year, this vast project will be the world’s second-largest solar plant.

But that is not its real novelty. The solar array is being grafted onto the back of the nation’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, fired by natural gas. It is an experiment in whether conventional power generation can be married with renewable power in a way that lowers costs and spares the environment.

Why would utilities look at this as a solution?  They’re going to do this for a number of reasons.  Among them: the addition of solar arrays to already existing infrastructure reduces up-front capital requirements.  New land doesn’t have to be located and developed.  Since the natural gas plant already exists nearby where the power is being used, transmissions costs are lower than they otherwise would be.  Overall greenhouse gas pollution will be lower over the lifetime of the solar arrays than if the gas plant didn’t have them.  The plant will be able to utilize solar energy when it is needed most: when the sun is shining in the summer and Floridians are cranking up their ACs.

In the long-term, this experiment will aid similar ventures by other utilities.  Assembling a solar plant of this size (75 MW) will help push the price of solar panels down.  That’s important as additional states consider renewable energy standards and as the standards grow with time.  Utilities will be facing increasing requirements to add renewable energy resources to their portfolios: wind, solar, geothermal, etc.  They’re going to look to install the cheapest, most efficient technologies at first.  Right now, that probably means wind power, given that its costs are relatively lower than solar today.  But we all know that wind power isn’t feasible everywhere, in the same way that solar isn’t either.  They’re going to be complimentary power sources.  Thus, it makes sense for FPL Group and others to push the boundaries of solar and bring its costs in line with those of wind, and eventually those of oil and gas as their carbon costs are truly reflected in their usage costs.

Beyond these new power sources, additional factors will come into play.

Instead of adding new capacity, smart grid designs and investments in transmission lines could also help balance the contribution of intermittent resources, said Tim Stephure, an analyst at Emerging Energy Research, a consulting firm. Some regional operators, such as PJM, are also encouraging their large customers to cut consumption when demand is at its peak to reduce the overall power requirements on the grid, said Mr. Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund.

There is no magic bullet that will bring renewables online across the nation next year.  Dozens of solutions across a range of sizes and costs will have to be sought after and implemented.  FPL Group’s efforts are but the beginning.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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