Dark Clouds In Solar Thermal Industry: ITC and Transmission Lines

While the solar thermal industry is quickly becoming the darling of the cleantech world, with another hundred million of investment dollars rolling in just this morning, solar thermal companies attending the Concentrated Solar Power’s U.S. summit in San Francisco on Monday showed their anxiety over two dark and growing clouds on solar thermal’s horizon: the impending expiration of the solar energy investment tax credit (ITC), and the lack of investment in transmission lines. Not only are these the two biggest factors limiting solar thermal, but they exist almost entirely outside of the industry’s influence.

Every panel and presenter asked the audience to get in touch with their Congressperson and ask them to extend the ITC. Currently set to expire at the end of 2008, the credit is viewed by many as a make-or-break provision for the industry. As Solel President and CEO Avi Brenmiller, referencing their planned 553 MW project, said flatly, “With no ITC there will be no project.”

The industry is eager to see whose technological bet — be it SkyFuel’s SkyTrough, Ausra’s linear Fresnel, Solel’s parabolic troughs or BrightSource’s central power tower — will pay off. But the young solar industry has little relative political clout, and it might be up to bigger players like GE with their wind interests to prod Congress into incentivizing renewable energy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she plans to bring the ITC up for renewal, but Donna Flynn, Washington Council for Ernst & Young, implored the audience to make their voices heard. “We need something before July 1st or we’re going to die,” she said to laughs, sighs and ubiquitous head nods.

Then there is America’s strained transmission infrastructure. Brenmiller said adequate transmission lines are by far the biggest challenge in siting possible solar projects and the cause of most delays. This is the same limiting factor Google founder Larry Page put forward at Davos as the top energy priority for the next U.S. President.

There are groups forming to address this, including the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative assembled to push forward upgrades in California’s transmission lines to meet the state’s ambitious renewable portfolio standard.

It won’t be easy to simply throw up more high-tension transmission lines. “When you build a power project you tick off a community,” Stuart Hemphill, director of Renewable and Alternative Power for Southern California Edison, said. “When you build a transmission project you tick off a 100 communities.” He referred to NIMBY as “the good old days” and described the current public opinion as BANANA — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

It is impossible to talk about renewable energy without considering public policy and infrastructure, Hemphill said. While today’s huge investment announcement from Solel shows that some are optimistic about solar thermal’s ability to overcome these obstacles, there has yet to be real progress made in keeping solar’s tax incentives intact or ensuring that sufficient transmission lines will snake their way across the the high solar potential deserts in the Southwest.