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Big week for utility-driven solar tech investment

Who would have thunk that the erst-while Garden State could be such a big player in solar energy? The way the wind has been blowing (literally) for the past two days, it's pretty clear that wind resources are big.

Who would have thunk that the erst-while Garden State could be such a big player in solar energy? The way the wind has been blowing (literally) for the past two days, it's pretty clear that wind resources are big. But the sun is far less reliable here in New Jersey. Probably, it will wind up being a seasonal bet, with wind turbines doing their part in the fall and winter months and solar kicking in while we're all soaking up the rays at the Jersey Shore.

Anyway, Public Services Electric & Gas Company (PSE&G), which also happens to be my utility company, is planning to spend $773 million to add 120 megawatts of utility-owned photovoltaic capacity in its service area. The investment is part of PSE&G's Solar 4 All Program. Through that effort, the utility is adding solar panels on up to 200,000 utility poles, placing panels on government facilities, installing solar plants on utility-owned property and other underutilized real estate (including affordable housing developments).

The Solar Electric Power Association predicts that utility-initiated development such as the plan in New Jersey will be driven by the recent changes to the federal solar investment tax credit, which now allow utilities to take advantage of the credits. Other utilities that have embraced similar projects include Southern California Edison (SCE), San Diego Gas & Electric and Duke Energy.

Speaking of SCE, that utility this week signed what is being billed as the world's largest solar deal.

The agreement calls for 1,300 megawatts of clean solar thermal power through contracts with BrightSource Energy, a company whose investors include Google.org. The first plant, providing 100 megawatts of capacity, is targeted for Ivanpah, Calif. It could be operational by 2013. The deal needs to be approved by the California Public Utilties Commission. (Incidentally, the activity in New Jersey also needs a regulatory thumbs-up before anything can happen.)

BrightSource uses a proprietary technology that is called the Luz Power Tower 550 (LPT 550) to generate energy from sunlight. The system uses heliostat mirrors to produce steam that is directed to a conventional turbine. The steam is turned back into water and redirected to the boiler in a closed loop. You can read more about the technology at this link.