The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

January 15, 2014

After a building boom, solar energy's prospects now aren't as sunny

LOS ANGELES — Five years after the Obama administration’s renewable energy initiative touched off a building boom of large-scale solar power plants across the desert Southwest, the pace of development has slowed to a crawl, with a number of companies going out of business and major projects canceled for lack of financing.

Of the 365 federal solar applications since 2009, just 20 plants are on track to be built. Only three large-scale solar facilities have gone online, two in California and one in Nevada. The first auction of public land for solar developers, an event once highly anticipated by federal planners, failed to draw a single bid last fall.

Several factors are responsible, industry analysts say. The tight economy has made financing difficult to obtain, and the federal government has not said whether it will continue to offer tax credits of the size that brought a rush of interest in large-scale solar five years ago.

“I would say we are in an assessment period,” said Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute. “Nobody’s going to break ground on any big new solar projects right now — utilities want to see how farms coming online this year fit into the grid, and developers are waiting for more certainty about state policies and federal tax credits.”

Another, somewhat unexpected issue is the difficulty solar developers are having negotiating agreements to sell their power to large utilities. The agreements reached to date guarantee solar providers higher rates than utilities pay for power from traditional energy sources.

Utilities had been willing pay more because many states, including California, require them to derive a significant percentage of their power from renewable energy sources. But now utilities in many states are on track to meet those requirements, giving them less incentive to buy higher-priced solar energy — especially as a steep decline in natural gas prices has cut the cost of power from gas-fired generators.

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