Were SolarReserve to de-emphasize U.S. projects, it would be another in a series of setbacks for U.S. solar technology and developers. Beyond the partisan backlash and broader economic recession, a key cause for these woes has been the plummeting cost of conventional photovoltaic panels, which have collapsed by roughly half over past two years.
The downward price spiral was the key culprit and Solyndra's crash, and others have followed suit. U.S. players Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt have likewise gone under. Just before Christmas, energy giant BP, once famous for a commitment "Beyond Petroleum", fully exited the solar business, saying it "can't make money" selling panels. Analysts agree that this brutal shakeout will continue, jeopardizing mature and startup solar players alike.
Plummeting PV prices are affecting SolarReserve's competitors too. Indeed, its progress in Tonapah is all the more notable given the attrition rate of other efforts to build very large concentrated solar thermal (CST) projects. Once regarded as a low-cost way to capture the sun's energy, many CST facilities have been done in by the tumbling price of conventional solar panels. To date, solar farms totaling 3,000 megawatts of capacity have switched from CST to conventional panels. That SolarReserve has avoided having to make such a switch is partly due to the edge offered by its ability to store energy.
Complicating any discussion on the future of solar is that, for all the harm ultra-cheap PV panels have done to some U.S. manufacturers, they have provided windfall savings for many panel buyers and many project developers. In the U.S., the industry is closing out its biggest ever year, with upwards of 1,700 megawatts worth of solar brought on-line, nearly double the 887 megawatts installed in 2010. Blue-chip investors continue to pile into new projects, too. Last week, Google laid out $94 million to fund four new solar power farms near Sacramento, Calif.
Come 2013, when SolarReserve's solar tower starts to glow, the sight will surely attract tourists, press and industry attention. Here's hoping the tall tower won't mark the nadir of home-grown U.S. solar technology, as well.
Images courtesy of SolarReserve.