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Title: Utility-Scale Solar 2015: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States

Abstract

The utility-scale solar sector—defined here to include any ground-mounted photovoltaic (“PV”), concentrating photovoltaic (“CPV”), or concentrating solar power (“CSP”) project that is larger than 5 MWAC in capacity—has led the overall U.S. solar market in terms of installed capacity since 2012. It is expected to maintain its market-leading position for at least another five years, driven in part by December 2015’s three-year extension of the 30% federal investment tax credit (“ITC”) through 2019 (coupled with a favorable switch to a “start construction” rather than a “placed in service” eligibility requirement, and a gradual phase down of the credit to 10% by 2022). In fact, in 2016 alone, the utility-scale sector is projected to install more than twice as much new capacity as it ever has previously in a single year. This unprecedented boom makes it difficult, yet more important than ever, to stay abreast of the latest utility-scale market developments and trends. This report—the fourth edition in an ongoing annual series—is intended to help meet this need, by providing in-depth, annually updated, data-driven analysis of the utility-scale solar project fleet in the United States. Drawing on empirical project-level data from a wide range of sources, this report analyzes not justmore » installed project costs or prices—i.e., the traditional realm of most solar economic analyses—but also operating costs, capacity factors, and power purchase agreement (“PPA”) prices from a large sample of utility-scale solar projects throughout the United States. Given its current dominance in the market, utility-scale PV also dominates much of this report, though data from CPV and CSP projects are also presented where appropriate.« less

Authors:
 [1];  [1]
  1. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. (LBNL), Berkeley, CA (United States). Environmental Energy Technologies Division
Publication Date:
Research Org.:
Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. (LBNL), Berkeley, CA (United States)
Sponsoring Org.:
USDOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), Solar Energy Technologies Office (EE-4S)
OSTI Identifier:
1342230
Report Number(s):
LBNL-1006037
ir:1006037
DOE Contract Number:
AC02-05CH11231
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English

Citation Formats

Bolinger, Mark, and Seel, Joachim. Utility-Scale Solar 2015: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States. United States: N. p., 2016. Web. doi:10.2172/1342230.
Bolinger, Mark, & Seel, Joachim. Utility-Scale Solar 2015: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States. United States. doi:10.2172/1342230.
Bolinger, Mark, and Seel, Joachim. 2016. "Utility-Scale Solar 2015: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States". United States. doi:10.2172/1342230. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1342230.
@article{osti_1342230,
title = {Utility-Scale Solar 2015: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States},
author = {Bolinger, Mark and Seel, Joachim},
abstractNote = {The utility-scale solar sector—defined here to include any ground-mounted photovoltaic (“PV”), concentrating photovoltaic (“CPV”), or concentrating solar power (“CSP”) project that is larger than 5 MWAC in capacity—has led the overall U.S. solar market in terms of installed capacity since 2012. It is expected to maintain its market-leading position for at least another five years, driven in part by December 2015’s three-year extension of the 30% federal investment tax credit (“ITC”) through 2019 (coupled with a favorable switch to a “start construction” rather than a “placed in service” eligibility requirement, and a gradual phase down of the credit to 10% by 2022). In fact, in 2016 alone, the utility-scale sector is projected to install more than twice as much new capacity as it ever has previously in a single year. This unprecedented boom makes it difficult, yet more important than ever, to stay abreast of the latest utility-scale market developments and trends. This report—the fourth edition in an ongoing annual series—is intended to help meet this need, by providing in-depth, annually updated, data-driven analysis of the utility-scale solar project fleet in the United States. Drawing on empirical project-level data from a wide range of sources, this report analyzes not just installed project costs or prices—i.e., the traditional realm of most solar economic analyses—but also operating costs, capacity factors, and power purchase agreement (“PPA”) prices from a large sample of utility-scale solar projects throughout the United States. Given its current dominance in the market, utility-scale PV also dominates much of this report, though data from CPV and CSP projects are also presented where appropriate.},
doi = {10.2172/1342230},
journal = {},
number = ,
volume = ,
place = {United States},
year = 2016,
month = 8
}

Technical Report:

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  • Other than the SEGS I-IX parabolic trough projects built in the 1980s, virtually no large-scale or "utility-scale" solar projects-defined here to include any ground-mounted photovoltaic ("PV"), concentrating photovoltaic ("CPV"), or concentrating solar power ("CSP" or solar thermal) project larger than 5 MW AC-existed in the United States prior to 2007.
  • Other than the nine Solar Energy Generation Systems (“SEGS”) parabolic trough projects built in the 1980s, virtually no large-scale or “utility-scale” solar projects – defined here to include any groundmounted photovoltaic (“PV”), concentrating photovoltaic (“CPV”), or concentrating solar thermal power (“CSP”) project larger than 5 MW AC – existed in the United States prior to 2007. By 2012 – just five years later – utility-scale had become the largest sector of the overall PV market in the United States, a distinction that was repeated in both 2013 and 2014 and that is expected to continue for at least the nextmore » few years. Over this same short period, CSP also experienced a bit of a renaissance in the United States, with a number of large new parabolic trough and power tower systems – some including thermal storage – achieving commercial operation. With this critical mass of new utility-scale projects now online and in some cases having operated for a number of years (generating not only electricity, but also empirical data that can be mined), the rapidly growing utility-scale sector is ripe for analysis. This report, the third edition in an ongoing annual series, meets this need through in-depth, annually updated, data-driven analysis of not just installed project costs or prices – i.e., the traditional realm of solar economics analyses – but also operating costs, capacity factors, and power purchase agreement (“PPA”) prices from a large sample of utility-scale solar projects in the United States. Given its current dominance in the market, utility-scale PV also dominates much of this report, though data from CPV and CSP projects are presented where appropriate.« less
  • The utility-scale solar sector has led the overall U.S. solar market in terms of installed capacity since 2012. In 2016, the utility-scale sector installed more than 2.5 times as much new capacity as did the residential and commercial sectors combined, and is expected to maintain its dominant position for at least another five years. This report—the fifth edition in an ongoing annual series—provides data-driven analysis of the utility-scale solar project fleet in the United States. We analyze not just installed project prices, but also operating costs, capacity factors, and power purchase agreement ("PPA") prices from a large sample of utility-scalemore » PV and CSP projects throughout the United States. Highlights from this year's edition include the following: Installation Trends: The use of solar tracking devices dominated 2016 installations, at nearly 80% of all new capacity. In a reflection of the ongoing geographic expansion of the market beyond California and the Southwest, the median long-term average insolation level at newly built project sites declined again in 2016. While new fixed-tilt projects are now seen predominantly in less-sunny regions, tracking projects are increasingly pushing into these same regions. The median inverter loading ratio has stabilized in 2016 at 1.3 for both tracking and fixed-tilt projects. Installed Prices: Median installed PV project prices within a sizable sample have fallen by two-thirds since the 2007-2009 period, to $2.2/WAC (or $1.7/WDC) for projects completed in 2016. The lowest 20th percentile of projects within our 2016 sample were priced at or below $2.0/WAC, with the lowest-priced projects around $1.5/WAC. Overall price dispersion across the entire sample and across geographic regions decreased significantly in 2016. Operation and Maintenance (“O&M”) Costs: What limited empirical O&M cost data are publicly available suggest that PV O&M costs were in the neighborhood of $18/kWAC-year, or $8/MWh, in 2016. These numbers include only those costs incurred to directly operate and maintain the generating plant. Capacity Factors: The cumulative net AC capacity factors of individual PV projects range widely, from 15.4% to 35.5%, with a sample median of 26.3%. This project-level variation is based on a number of factors, including the strength of the solar resource at the project site, whether the array is mounted at a fixed-tilt or on a tracking mechanism, the inverter loading ratio, degradation, and curtailment. Changes in at least the first three of these factors drove mean capacity factors higher from 2010- to 2013-vintage projects, where they’ve remained fairly steady among both 2014- and 2015-vintage projects as an ongoing increase in the prevalence of tracking has been offset by a build-out of lower resource sites. Meanwhile, several of the newer CSP projects in the United States are struggling to match long-term performance expectations. PPA Prices: Driven by lower installed project prices and improving capacity factors, levelized PPA prices for utility-scale PV have fallen dramatically over time. Most recent PPAs in our sample are priced at or below $50/MWh levelized, with a few priced as aggressively as ~$30/MWh. Though impressive in pace and scale, these falling PPA prices have been offset to some degree by declining wholesale market value within high penetration markets like California, where in 2016 a MWh of solar generation was worth just 83% of a MWh of flat, round-the-clock generation. At the end of 2016, there were at least 121.4 GW of utility-scale solar power capacity within the interconnection queues across the nation. The growth within these queues is widely distributed across all regions of the country: California and the Southeast each account for 23% of the 83.3 GW of solar that first entered the queues in 2016, followed by the Northeast (17%), the Southwest (16%), the Central region (12%), Texas (6%) and the Northwest (3%). The widening geographic distribution of solar projects is a clear sign that the utility-scale market is maturing and expanding outside of its traditional high-insolation comfort zones.« less
  • This report discusses the theory of marginal-cost pricing and its relation to the problems utility commissions face in setting just and reasonable rates for electricity. It applies basic concepts of microeconomics to the problems of estimating marginal costs in that industry showing how this results in time-differentiated costs. It discusses theoretical problems associated with costing, including capacity responsibility, charges for long-lived assets, and distribution costs. Finally, it discusses the theoretical considerations involved in deriving rates from costs, including problems of second-best and the revenue constraint.