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Sempra favours thin-film panels

Posted: 26 Aug 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:photovoltaic plant  thin-film panels  solar technologies  solar thermal power 

Sempra Energy prefers thin-film panels over rival solar technologies because they are less costly and faster to bring online, the head of the company's power generation business revealed.

Sempra, which recently announced it is building a 10-megawatt photovoltaic plant in Nevada with First Solar, is planning a 40-MW to 50-MW expansion of the plant next year that is also likely to use First Solar thin-film solar modules, Sempra Generation Chief Executive Michael Allman said in an interview Thursday.

Photovoltaic, or PV, panels transform light from the sun's rays into electricity, while solar thermal power plants use the sun to heat liquid that creates steam to power a turbine. First Solar's panels are cheaper to produce than conventional PV panels because they are not made from high-priced silicon. They are, however, less efficient at turning sunlight into energy.

San Diego-based Sempra announced its first solar power plant, located near Boulder City, Nevada, last month, though the company said that is just the beginning of a wider effort to expand its renewables portfolio.

With California and other states requiring more electricity from renewable sources, Sempra sees strong demand for new solar and wind power projects so utilities can meet those states' aggressive goals, Allman said.

Beyond the Boulder City project, Sempra wants to add "as much as 300 to 400 MW of solar" generation to the land around its Mesquite gas-fired power plant outside Phoenix, he said. That project, which would not happen until 2010 or 2011, is also likely to be thin film.

"Our view right now is that it's likely to be thin-film PV," Allman said. "We see that as the least expensive today, and it has the opportunity to be reduced in cost in the future, but we haven't settled on that yet."

Industry watchers believe thin-film solar is poised to capture a big share of the U.S. power market as more utilities seek renewable energy at the lowest cost. First Solar, based in Tempe, Arizona, is the biggest thin-film solar company, and its cadmium telluride solar cells are far less expensive to produce than the silicon-based cells that dominate the market.

Solar thermal plants cost more to build and don't have photovoltaic solar's advantage of coming online one megawatt at a time, allowing the company to generate sales as it is built, Allman said.

"With a solar thermal plant it's a three-year construction cycle and you get nothing until you are done," he said, whereas at Boulder City, "we committed to begin construction about a month ago and we'll be completely done by the end of the year."

In addition to solar, Sempra is building its first wind farm in Mexico that could ultimately generate as much as 1,000 MW of electricity. The first phase of the project, about 150 to 175 MW, will be completed in 2011.

For future projects, Allman said, Sempra is looking at affordable land near existing transmission lines—sites that are getting tougher to find.

"There is a bit of a land rush going on," Allman said. "We've seen a run-up in prices."

Of all the renewable energy technologies, solar and wind are Sempra's "two favourites," Allman said, though he added that the company is also looking at biogas and wave power.

Sempra shares fell 11 cents to close at Rs.2,443.79 ($57.02) on the New York Stock Exchange. First Solar's shares, meanwhile, rose 2.3 per cent to close at Rs.11,969.08 ($279.27).

-Nichola Groom

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