Image: Bright Source Energy
India announced that it intends to build the biggest solar power plant in the world in Rajastan, the sprawling western state that borders Pakistan. The Times of India reports that when completed, the solar plant will boast 4,000 megawatts (MW) of capacity. That's way bigger than most nuclear and coal-fired power plants, and enough to power somewhere in the ballpark of 3 million American-style homes. It would also be about four times bigger than the ten biggest American solar plants combined.
In fact, even if just the first phase of the project is completed—which will comprise laying out enough solar panels to provide 1,000 MW of power, and its slated to be completed by 2016—it will be bigger than the ten largest American solar photovoltaic plants running right now.
There are serious caveats to consider here, of course. It's worth being skeptical about projects of this size, for reasons we'll dive into below. According to GreenTech Media Research, the biggest solar plant currently operating in the United States, the Agua Caliente project in Arizona, has a capacity of just 333 MW. The next biggest is the Mesquite Solar One plant, also in Arizona, which clocks in at 110 MW. Then we've got a 60 MW FirstSolar project in Nevada, and it's all downhill from there.
In other words, India's solar adventure in Rajastan is truly a massive one. The project would cover 23,000 acres of land, and triple the nation's burgeoning solar capacity. The government is well aware of its historic nature.
"Being the first project of this scale anywhere in the world this project is expected to set a trend for large scale solar power development in the world," wrote India's UPA government in a statement about the project. And surely, it's an impressive pursuit. But its gargantuan size has some experts concerned.
"It's an important announcement, for sure," Stephen Lacey, the senior editor of GreenTech Media, told me. "But I'm usually somewhat skeptical of massive, massive projects like this."
That's because projects like this tend to come in phases, he says, involve multiple companies—and therefore conflicting interests—and "tend to take a long time before they actually get finished." In other words, there's reason to be cautious about the claim that a 1,000 MW plant can be built in the Indian desert in just three years.
"When people talk about these mega projects you always have to take them with a grain of salt, and understand that they come in phases," Lacey said.
Despite the hurdles, the US is attempting some massive solar projects of its own. The Antelope Valley plant in California will be 579 MW—still just one eighth the size of India's plant—when it's finally finished next year.
The SolarOne plant in Nevada. Image: Wikimedia
Ivanpah, a concentrated solar thermal project coming to California's Mohave Desert, will generate 377 MW. Bright Source Energy, the company behind the solar beast, claims that Ivanpah is "currently the largest solar plant under construction in the world." It will provide power to 140,000 California homes.
But still, nothing here even approaches the scale of the Indian plant. The best analog to a project that size might be Desertec, an ambitious proposal to install a massive solar field in the Sahara Desert, and to wire the power to Europe. But that project, which would have been the biggest ever attempted, has stalled.
"That's basically been shelved," Lacey said, "because of the cost of linking grids together and cleaning the panels." The cost of commodities like steel, glass, and silica also serve as potential obstacles to mega-projects like Desertec and the Rajastan plan.
Despite his reservations, Lacey says that it's important to note that the size of solar projects is indeed increasing.
"We have seen projects get bigger and bigger," he said.
Here in the states, solar got big because government subsidies provided major incentives (and mandates) for utilities to buy renewable, carbon emissions-free energy. That's why we've seen a spate of relatively big projects here in the Southwest. Now, government support is waning—but solar's cheaper than ever. China's hyper-driven manufacturing sector has brought the price of solar panels down worldwide.
So don't expect to see too many more mega-projects, at least not here in the US. Instead, expect to see more small-scale projects—more rooftop panels and community-scale solar. That's the kind of solar power we can buy and build without sweeping government action or the agreement of corporate consortiums.
Mega-solar projects are great. They get clean energy some much-needed press, and we'll likely see a handful announced each year, and they'll continue to get bigger and bigger. But for now, the most promising future of solar lies right above your roof.