Despite pandemic and supply chain problems, utility-scale solar posts a record in 2021

Despite pandemic and supply chain problems, utility-scale solar posts a record in 2021

Energize Weekly, October 12, 2022

A record 12.5 gigawatts (GW) of large, utility-scale photovoltaic solar projects came online in 2021 as the levelized cost of such projects has fallen 85 percent in the last 12 years, according to an analysis by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“This is quite a feat,” Joachim Seel, a Berkeley researcher said in a webinar presentation. “In 2020 when COVID was still disrupting our lives and supply chain disputations were already on the horizons, few people would have expected solar to go to such great lengths in 2021.”

A market study by consultant Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association put the total utility-scale solar additions in 2021 at 17 GW – the Berkeley study looked at the largest installations, projects of 5 megawatts (MW) or more.

Utility-scale solar accounted for 29 percent of all the new capacity added to the grid in 2021. Distributed solar made up another 15 percent of new additions. Wind accounted for 32 percent of new generation capacity.

Solar generation’s market share across the U.S. in 2021 was just 3.9 percent, but it has become significant in some regions. California’s market share reached 25 percent, while Massachusetts, Nevada, Hawaii, and Vermont all surpassed 15 percent.

Montana, the Dakotas, New Hampshire, and West Virginia still haven’t seen any major utility-scale solar projects, according to the analysis.

Texas – in its Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid – was a “solar hotbed,” adding 3.9 GW or almost a third of all utility-scale solar capacity in 2021. Texas also completed some of the country’s largest projects with capacities of up to 420 MW.

Single-axis tracking technology made up 90 percent of the 2021 capacity – it has been the technology of choice since 2015. Tracking boosts the capacity factor – the time a project operates at full power – by 5 percent, the study said.

“Fixed-tilt projects are increasingly only being built on particularly challenging sites (e.g., due to terrain or wind loading) or in the least-sunny regions in the northeast,” the analysis said.

The capacity factor for individual projects ranged from 9 percent to 35 percent based on technology and the solar resources. For example, 14 fixed-tilt projects in New England averaged a capacity factory of about 16 percent, while 166 California tracking systems averaged nearly 30 percent.

The other major technological trend is pairing solar installations with energy storage. “In 2021, hybrid solar-storage projects hit the ground in record numbers,” the analysis said.

Batteries were added to 18 existing and 29 new photovoltaic projects. Sun-rich California added the most storage capacity 1.2 GW. But even Massachusetts deployed 14 small-size battery projects.

Other states adding hybrid projects were Florida, four plants with 500 MW of generation and 1.1 GW-hours of storage, and Texas, three plants with 200 MW of capacity and 200 MW-hours of storage.

The levelized cost of utility-scale projects, the cost of building and operating an installation over its lifetime has fallen by about 85 percent since 2010, the analysis said.

The drivers for the decline have been lower capital costs, at least through 2013, higher capacity factors, lower operating expenses, longer design life and improved financing terms, the study said.

Operation and maintenance costs have decreased 58 percent since 2011 “as project portfolios grow and projects become established,” the analysis said.

At the end of 2021, 674 GW of solar projects were in the pipeline, with 265 GW of them added in 2021.

The growth is particularly pronounced in the PJM Interconnection, which serves mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which serves 15 central U.S. states from the Gulf coast to the Canadian border, and the western states.

“There is a lot of solar capacity in the queues and it is spread pretty broadly across the U.S.,” Mark Bolinger, a Berkeley researcher said.

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