Last week saw yet another in a recent string of large PV system announcements--the latest one from PG&E with SunPower and Optisolar weighing in at 800MW! It's an exciting announcement that should largely put to rest any question about the role PV can play in utility-scale renewable generation. But what's really exciting is that I think it is just the beginning. I expect we'll see more and more of these types of projects as utilities turn to ever-lower-cost solar to address impending RPS obligations.
For obvious reasons, I'm thrilled about the trend towards large-scale solar. Our project with SFPUC is another data point in the trend. However in spite of that excitement, we also have to recognize that the rise of large-scale solar raises some challenging policy questions. In particular, the question of whether utilities should own solar generation needs to be addressed.
This is not an anti-utility rant. It's critically important to acknowledge that large-scale solar simply won't happen without utility support. Utilities are important stakeholders and they have to see large-scale solar as a "win" for themselves and their shareholders. That means we have to find an approach that provides utilities with an opportunity to profit from large-scale solar deployment.
However, there are good reasons to question whether it's necessary for utilities to own solar generation to achieve those goals--the same good reasons that apply for any form of electric generation. History and simple economics show quite clearly that the "guaranteed return" utilities get for investing in generating assets does not incentivize them to reduce costs or seek new technologies. Generally speaking, competitive markets do a much better job of allocating resources efficiently.
The simple truth is that utilities don't need to own large-scale solar to deploy large-scale solar. The approach taken by PG&E is clear evidence that there are effective policy alternatives. It would be far preferable for utilities to purchase solar electricity from competitive, independently-owned solar plants. In the end, I think that approach has greater promise to deliver the best results for all stakeholders--utilities, ratepayers, and society combined.