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Blythe 1-GW C.S.P. shifts to PV, finds panels more economical

First days of moving equipment for Blythe. Photo lifted from

Developers of the Blythe solar power project, supposed to be the largest solar thermal power plant using solar troughs, have decided to use solar photovoltaic technology instead because solar panels are said to be more economical.

Germany's Solar Millennium A.G. said it will convert the first 500 megawatts of its 1,000 MW solar power plant being built in the Mojave Desert in California to solar PV panels.

The company and its United States subsidiary Solar Trust of America, has yet to name a PV panel supplier for the project and the technology it plans to use for the second half of Blythe.

Blythe was originally designed to use solar troughs, which are long curved mirrors that direct sunlight to a receiver pipe running in front of the reflector. The pipe contains a heat transfer liquid used to generate steam which powers a turbine that drives an electric generator.

Uwe Schmidt, chairman of Solar Trust, said developing part of Blythe as a commercial PV project is a "more attractive strategy for the company in the current market". In comparison, PV technology use solar panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity.

The average selling price of solar modules that make up solar panels have already dropped from more than $2 per watt in 2009 to about $1.50 this year, a June report from Ernst & Young noted. The report expects those rates of decline will continue, with prices falling close to the $1 mark in 2013.

"Solar Millennium responds quickly and pragmatically to market conditions, and at the moment the California market favors PV technology," Christoph Wolff, Solar Millennium chief executive, said in a statement.

Despite the move, Mr. Wolff said the company will maintain a strong international pipeline of C.S.P. projects. "Our long-term strategy remains unchanged. We see solid demand for C.S.P. in the world growth markets such as Africa, the Middle East, India, and China.

This is also true for Southern Europe where we have just achieved financial close on our fourth C.S.P. plant in Spain," he said.

Based on previous statements from Solar Trust, the total cost of installing the two 250-MW solar troughs in Blythe will be roughly $2.8 billion.

The company was offered a $2.1 billion conditional loan guarantee from the federal government in April, the second largest of its kind that the Energy department offered and the biggest for solar.

However, the loan guarantee program Blythe was eligible in was developed to fund new technologies that have had trouble getting financing from traditional lenders.

Mr. Schmidt said the company plans to look for other sources to finance the project after switching to a more mature technology. "In light of our change of technology, we now plan to finance the facility in the commercial bank market," Mr. Schmidt explained.

Solar Trust has become more interested in solar PV projects lately. In May of this year, the company said it was creating a joint venture with Germany-based SolarHybrid AG to develop large-scale PV projects.

Solar Trust has total of 2,250 MW of sites in advanced stages of development in the United States, which could now be a mix of both solar thermal and PV based on the company's recent business choices.

Conversion trend

Blythe is the latest solar projects in a string of such conversions this year by solar thermal power plant developers in California.

AES Solar, a joint venture between power company AES Corp. and private equity firm Riverstone Holdings, bought the 750-MW Imperial Valley solar thermal project from Tessera Solar, NTR Plc's solar development company, for an undisclosed sum in February.

However, AES sent the state energy commission a letter in June asking it to withdraw the license for the Imperial Valley project. The company said it was planning to use PV technology instead of Stirling engines, another solar thermal technology.

Stirling engine solar power plants use giant parabolic dish of mirrors that direct sunlight to heat up a chamber filled with pressurized gas. As the chamber is cooled and heated, the gas inside it pushes and pulls a piston which redirects the power to shaft to drive an electric generator.

As a result, the project would no longer be under the authority of the energy commission.

K Road Power also bought the $3-billion 850-MW Calico project from Tessera in December and said it would convert 750 MW of the project to PV panels in part due to financing. According to documents filed with the California Energy Commission in March, K Road said the shift would mean fewer workers, vehicles, and heavy equipment during construction. (Oliver M. Bayani)

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