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Mar 18, 2014  | Tom Cheyney  | 0 Comments

Solar at scale

New photography exhibit captures the vastness of utility-scale solar projects in the U.S. Southwest

One of the most common terms in the lexicon of the solar power revolution is “scale.” Whether it’s used as verb or noun in describing corporate or industry size and scope, manufacturing capacity, or massive solar farm deployments, “scale” suggests necessity and infers a roadmap to success. As impressive as burgeoning bottom lines and gigawatt-size production facilities can be, nothing says solar scale like the sight of millions of PV panels or hundreds of thousands of CSP heliostats arrayed over thousands of acres in multi-hundred-megawatt power plants. A new photo exhibit captures the sheer magnitude of the new generation of utility-scale solar farms, with aerial images of the largest projects in the southwestern U.S.

The show, titled “Solar Boom: Sun-Powered Electrical Plants in the USA,” is curated by and physically located at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), “a research and education organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface, and in finding new meanings in the intentional and incidental forms that we individually and collectively create” tucked into the West Los Angeles suburb of Culver City.

“With so many proposed projects, and so many stalled in the complicated political and regulatory process, it’s hard to know where things are really at,” notes the center’s website. “Over the past few weeks, photographers from the CLUI were dispatched to ground truth the current state of solar.
All the major solar plants in the southwest were visited, and the largest ones were photographed from the air, using aircraft and remote control camera platforms.
The resulting exhibit is a snapshot of large-scale solar power in the USA at this moment, including the 15 largest plants in the nation that are under construction, partially online, or complete, as of March 1, 2014.”

A recent post on Gizmodo turned me onto the exhibition and the center. For those involved or interested in the utility solar boom, the names of the photographed sites read like a litany of renewable energy progress: California Valley Solar Ranch, Desert Sunlight, Genesis, Agua Caliente, Copper Mountain, Ivanpah, and the granddaddies of them all, SEGS 3-7 and 8-9. The CLUI site has an extensive hyperlinked listing of completed, under construction, and in development projects, each with a Google Earth map image and some with photos. An interactive map channels the locational info as well.

One of those mega plants, the 550MW (AC) Topaz Solar Farm, is nearing completion. Located on spent former farmland on the Carrisa Plains in San Luis Obispo County, California, the First Solar-built, MidAmerican-owned, PG&E-PPAed project already has more than 300MW installed and generating power, representing well over half of the eventual ~9 million CdTe thin-film PV modules to be deployed. Although I can’t share it directly (“embedding disabled by request” for some reason), a fresh YouTube video from MidAmerican Renewables captures the vastness of Topaz, with swooping low-altitude aerial time-lapse and real-time construction footage spicing up the nearly three-minute voiceoverless minidocumentary.

Both the CLUI exhibit and Topaz video depict the duality of these colossal solar farms, where 21st century energy meets nature’s immensity in a sublime yet sometimes jarring jigsaw.


Sources: Center for Land Use Interpretation, Gizmodo, MidAmerican Renewables, First Solar

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