Need Solar Power? Buy a Garden Plot

Solar mirrors suspended on stamen-like struts at an installation in Davis, Calif.
Todd Woody Solar mirrors suspended on stamenlike struts at an installation in Davis, Calif.

In an article in the special Energy section of The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about a developer who wants to sell “garden plots” in a 15-megawatt photovoltaic farm in Davis, Calif., so that residents can go solar without having to cut down trees in the city’s urban forest to install rooftop arrays.

While solar power plants seem like a 21st-century phenomenon, the Davis project dates from 1987, when the utility Pacific Gas and Electric built P.V.U.S.A. — Photovoltaics for Utility Scale Applications –- to test various nascent technologies.

Matt Cheney, a veteran renewable financier in San Francisco and founder of CleanPath Ventures, eventually acquired P.V.U.S.A. and received the city’s blessing to expand the power plant from around one megawatt to 15 megawatts.

Last week, I took a took a tour of the solar farm, a veritable outdoor Smithsonian of solar power displaying a dozen photovoltaic technologies. Some have become common sights on rooftops and at power plants while others barely left the laboratory before failing and bear the name of start-ups long gone.  

Built on an abandoned wastewater treatment plant and surrounded by farmland on Davis’s outskirts, P.V.U.S.A. features two-story-high thin-film solar panel arrays that were on the technological cutting edge in their day but only became commercially viable in recent years.

Strips of early solar tiles designed to serve as power-generating roofing material are laid out on a wooden platform.

And behind rows of more conventional solar panels lies a field of what looks like photovoltaic sunflowers. Pods of 25 small mirrors designed to concentrate the sun on a high-efficiency photovoltaic cell suspended on a stamenlike strut.

“They installed them back in 2004 and 2005, and two months into the installation, it stopped working and the company didn’t want to deal with them anymore,” said Dang H. Dang, P.V.U.S.A.’s on-site manager, as jackrabbits darted among the arrays.

Such concentrating photovoltaic systems are just now starting to be deployed in the California desert and in the sunnier areas of Europe.

Two other concentrating solar systems now serve mainly as roosts for birds, but their builders, Entech Solar and Amonix, remain in business and continue to perfect the early technology installed at P.V.U.S.A.

Mr. Cheney said that the solar farm would remain a test bed for advanced solar technologies as it expands.

“This is going to be a flagship CleanPath site,” he said. “We’re going with two new concentrating photovoltaic technologies with one at high concentration and one at low concentration.”

By TODD WOODY/NYT

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