The U.S. continues to transition toward a more diversified energy strategy as solar PV power continues to enlarge its share in this sector. Fueled by government initiatives to modernize the electricity grid along with a general shift in the public's demand for clean, renewable energy sources, the country's utility-scale PV is surpassing its historical growth rate at a nearly exponential level.

Utility-scale PV is on a roll

Solar projects at the utility level are not only growing in the U.S. but are thriving throughout the entire country. After taking decades for the country to install 10 cumulative gigawatts of solar PV by 2013, it will only take few months to double this number, according to GTM Research.

The source noted that there is currently 15,491 MWdc of U.S. utility capacity in operation. There are 13,604 MWdc contracted solar power purchase agreements signed and 10,106 MWDC in construction, with only a few quarters before they're completed. Even further, there is an additional 31,677 MWdc announced in the pre-contractual phase.

One of the reasons for this massive buildup of projects was due to the original deadline for the Investment Tax Credit. Before Congress extended this exemption, developers put as many projects in the works to take advantage of the incentive. Through 2016 and beginning of 2017, these installations are coming to fruition.

In addition, PPAs are now ranging in price between $35 per megawatt hour and $60 per megawatt hour, according to a GTM article. These affordable prices are pushing procurement projects to drive new developments and replenish older ones.

Utility solar expanding throughout the states

While places like California, North Carolina and Arizona have historically accounted for the overwhelming majority of utility-scale PV installations, states across the country have been adopting solar projects at a greater number. GTM Research has revealed that there are 11 states with 500 megawatts or more of PV projects currently in development. In addition, there are 20 states with 200 MWs or more currently in development. 

While the sunshine belt across the southern states is mostly on track to bring more than between 100-500 MWs or more online, even many northern states are getting in on the solar action. New Jersey has more than 500 MWs in development, and Minnesota, Montana and Idaho have increased their utility-scale projects development to between 100-500MWs.

With the ITC in place for several years and PPA prices beginning to look more enticing, states should continue to invest in and install more utility-scale PV arrays. 

Upgrading the energy grid

One of the factors helping to drive the growth of utility-scale solar projects has been the U.S. Department of Energy's new $220 million grid modernization plan currently underway. The initiative, dubbed the Grid Modernization Multi-Year Program, aims to upgrade the traditional grid architecture to ensure it aligns with the current shift away from traditional fossil fuels and toward more clean, renewable energy sources.

The older model consists of large-scale electricity generation from remote locations that is then distributed to consumers. This includes a hierarchical control structure with limited energy storage, passive loads and minimal feedback. However, in an effort to facilitate the surging growth of solar PV installations, the DOE has prioritized the modernization to the energy grid.

According to the DOE, the Grid Modernization Initiative focuses on six specific technical areas that represent the key developments necessary for improving the grid, including:

  • Devices and integrated systems testing
  • Sensing and measurements
  • System operations, power flow and control
  • Design and planning tools
  • Security and resilience
  • Institutional support

"The future grid will solve the challenges of seamlessly integrating conventional and renewable sources, storage, and central and distributed generation," states the initiative's vision. "It will provide a critical platform for U.S. prosperity, competitiveness and innovation in a global clean energy economy. It will deliver resilient, reliable, flexible, secure, sustainable and affordable electricity to consumers where they want it, when they want it, how they want it." 

With a greater emphasis on modernizing the electrical grid, the DOE should provide the adjustments and upgrades to the infrastructure necessary for handling the less centralized and more distributed model currently taking hold throughout this sector. 

"The United States' energy system is going through dramatic changes," said Energy Secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz. "This places a high premium on investing wisely in the energy infrastructure we need to move energy supplies to energy consumers."

Upgrading panels to 1500V

Trina Solar, a world leader in solar panel manufacturing, offers a variety of solar panels ideal for utility-scale production. Previously, 1000V panels were the standard for utility-scale PV installations, while 600V panels were the go-to modules prior to that. The reduced hardware needs resulting from 1,500V system deployment translates into longer term savings compared to 1,000V alternatives. Higher DC voltage also enables more efficient inverters, increasing system output for the same footprint..

Trina Solar's 1500V TALLMAX and TALLMAX M PLUS modules are ideal for large, utility-scale PV installations. With an 18.8 percent maximum efficiency rating and a 315-365W power output range, Trina's TALLMAX portfolio outperform 1000V modules, providing a faster return on investment and increases customers' PV system power density and performance. Using 1500V modules, utility-scale projects can have longer strings and larger inverters, which means bigger array sites with fewer components, which ultimately create a more cost-effective installation.

Although some traditional EPC firms are simply trying to meet their cost goals and build out their contracted pipeline with field-tested technology they're used to working with, the 1500V offers many benefits and advantages over older module types.

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