The solar power industry in the United States looks good on paper. State and federal subsidies decrease the costs of solar power system installations even though some of the states have discontinued their solar programs due to budget constraints. 29 states require electric utilities to produce part of its energy from renewable sources.
But in the past months, solar power companies in the United States have filed for bankruptcy. The most recent one is Solyndra Inc. Solar power hasn’t become a major player in the country because of several obstacles in the way.
The weak economy made it difficult for solar power companies to finance their new plants. One of the challenges for large-scale plants in the United States is the lack of water in the Southwestern desert where it logical to place the installations. But the biggest challenge of all is to find land to build them on.
A 1,000 megawatt power plant that uses coal, natural gas or nuclear fission would occupy less than 1,000 acres of land. On the other hand, solar requires thousands of acres. A concentrated solar power plant that utilizes steam cycle to spin a turbine that produces electricity requires at least 6,000 acres. Photovoltaic plants that have cells to convert solar radiation into electricity require double that amount of land.
Plus it should be taken into consideration about solar power’s limited production capacity. A conventional power plant can generate electricity around the clock with capacity of 90 percent. Solar power plant can only achieve 20 to 30 percent output. That means it would take three to four solar plants to produce the same megawatt hours of electricity that could be generated by a conventional plant.
This is one of the reasons why solar systems installed on city rooftops can’t replace fossil-fuel power plants. Two large photovoltaic plants in Southern California were only able to generate a few hundred megawatts of solar energy. It’s about the same amount of energy that a single large concentrated solar power plant can produce.
One of the problems that solar projects face is the lack of land available for them. Environmental groups have become solar projects’ top opponents. They oppose the granting of permits for solar power plants on marginal desert lands because surveys showed small number of important species, such as the endangered desert tortoise. While it is important to save the species, not all habitats are important for the protection of the species.