Five BIG solar trends from CLEANPOWER: Utility-scale solar rising

cleanpower green hydrogen solar

The annual CLEANPOWER conference and exposition brings together a large cross-section of the large-scale renewable energy industry, including solar, wind and green hydrogen. Hosted by the American Clean Power Association (ACP) on May 6-9 at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota, the event draws more than 8,300 attendees from all points of the globe.

I was there to get the scoop on the latest news and trends in large-scale solar development. While I’ll have more in-depth reporting in the months ahead, here are my broad takeaways from the conference.

Big changes: DOE transmission permitting rules

Building new transmission lines to connect clean energy projects to the grid was a major topic at the conference.

On May 8, I attended a panel titled “Not Just Lines on a Map: Moving Transmission Forward,” moderated by Kelly Speakes-Backman, executive VP of public affairs at Invenergy, with speakers including Jayni Hein, counsel and co-chair carbon management and climate mitigation at Covington & Burling; Al Vickers, chief operating officer at Grid United; Samuel Walsh, general counsel at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The discussion centered on the April 25 news that the DOE had released its final transmission permitting rule, which established the Coordinated Interagency Transmission Authorizations and Permits (CITAP) Program. The CITAP Program aims to improve federal environmental reviews and permitting processes for qualifying transmission projects.

Walsh said that focus on energy transmission has improved within the DOE over the last 10 years, explaining “now, the DOE is setting schedules for environmental permitting.”

Under the program, the DOE coordinates with other federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews and authorizations within a standard two-year schedule.

In addition, Walsh discussed the The Biden-Harris administration allocating up to $331 million to add more than 2,000 MW of additional grid capacity throughout the western United States.

Vickers noted that “it seems like there is more momentum on transmission,” describing a “chicken or the egg” scenario when it came to project permitting and stakeholder commitment (i.e., it’s hard to have one without the other, but which comes first?), but the changes at the DOE have allowed the project to move forward.

“What changed is the DOE now has a suite of tools to overcome the chicken and the egg scenario, and that has been really helpful,” Vickers said.  

Big gains: Utility-scale shines in Q1

The folks at ACP hosted a news conference on May 7 to share the association’s new Clean Power Quarterly Market Report | Q1 2024. In an impressive start to the year, the report shows that the U.S. utility-scale solar, wind and storage sectors added a combined 5,585 MW of new capacity in the first quarter of 2024, marking an increase of 28% compared to installations in the same period a year ago.

Leading the charge, utility-scale solar reached a major milestone, surpassing 100 GW of operating capacity for the first time. John Hensley, ACP’s VP of markets and policy analysis, said that it took 18 years to build the first 50 GW of U.S. solar capacity, but just four years to double it.

A whopping 4,557 MW of new solar capacity was added in Q1 2024, contributing to the U.S. climbing to more than 100,547 MW of installed utility-scale solar, with nearly 40% of that newly installed capacity coming online in Florida. 

“The first quarter of 2024 set the pace for the year, underscoring both an industry that continues to break barriers and the increasing demand for clean energy solutions,” Hensley said. “Crossing the 100 GW milestone for solar, launching groundbreaking projects like South Fork Wind, and a record-setting pace of new contracts for clean energy are clear indicators of the public’s demand to bolster the grid with domestic, reliable and affordable clean energy.” 

ACP report clean power

Another big highlight was the increase in clean power procurement, with a 52% jump from Q1 2023, with 7,773 MW of new Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) as utilities and corporate buyers pursue renewables to power their businesses.

In addition, the ACP reported that the clean power pipeline expanded to nearly 175 GW — the highest amount on record. The majority of this expansion can be attributed to battery storage and solar, which have grown at an average rate of 11% and 4% per quarter since the second quarter of 2022. 

While energy storage deployments were flat compared to the same period in the previous year, the pipeline for new storage projects increased by 61% year-over-year to 31.6 GW in the near-term pipeline, indicating strong future growth. 

Addressing concerns about the 2024 presidential election and potential uncertainty in the market, Hensley said that the key fundamentals of the clean energy market are strong.

“There is strong demand from corporate buyers,” he said. “We’re seeing investment in all 50 states, which helps the longevity of the market.”

Big market: Data centers for AI

A common theme I heard from many sources at CLEANPOWER is the development of solar farms powering data centers to facilitate AI. It turns out your ChatGPT, DALL-E and deepfake programs require a huge amount of power to perform their computing services.  

Hanson Wood, head of development for onshore utility-scale renewables at RWE, explained that big companies like Microsoft and Google are seeking to power larger and larger data centers, but they still have corporate environmental responsibility goals. To achieve the power needed to support these AI facilities, Wood added that hybrid renewable projects may be the answer.

“The computing power needed to support [AI] is really unlike anything we’ve ever seen, in terms of what demand would be required to help support that and to grow,” he said. “There’s two characteristics. You’re seeing data centers are going to be sized larger than they had previously. And the product offerings that customers are seeking are more round the clock renewable energy, which by necessity has to be multi-technology pairings, so solar plus storage plus wind.”

Big question: Green hydrogen

The conference hosted a session on the green hydrogen market on May 7. ACP general counsel Gene Grace served as moderator for the panel, “Ringing in the Era of Green Hydrogen,” which included Jeremy Holland, P.E., market executive at Mortenson; Ben Gerber, president and CEO of Midwest Renewable Energy Tracking System (M-RETS); Devraj Banerjee, VP of renewables and structuring at Ambient Fuels LLC; and Ritu Bromley, director of strategy at Invenergy.

Banerjee and Bromley explained how the industrial and chemical industries are major proponents driving the interest in green hydrogen to decarbonize manufacturing and production facilities, such as steel plants, and to serve as a feedstock for chemical products.

One of the enduring challenges is how to make green hydrogen a sustainable reality.

“There’s a saying, hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be,” Gerber said.

Another challenge for investors is the uncertainty surrounding the 45V investment tax credits (ITC), with issues concerning hourly matching and renewable energy credits (RECs).

The panelists discussed how green hydrogen could be tied into clean energy hubs, or hybrid facilities that combine solar, wind and green hydrogen production.

In a separate conversation with EDP Renewables CEO Sandhya Ganapathy, I learned that the green hydrogen market is further along in Europe. She explained how EDP Renewables has had success with co-locating green hydrogen plants with wind and solar, similar to the clean energy hubs mentioned above.

“From a location perspective, these are all industrial hubs, so we have naturally updated [the grid],” she said. “As far as in the U.S., I have started looking at it. The challenge in the U.S. is, of course, we do need some clarity around the bottom line of it. But I think the biggest challenge that we have here is the U.S. is such a large country, so in terms of transportation, how do we actually move the green hydrogen from where you’re producing it to where you’re actually using it?”

Small fun: Live painting

cleanpower live painting

While strolling through the expo hall during CLEANPOWER, I noticed a bunch of tarps surrounding these teardrop-shaped bench structures. As I moved closer, I noticed a woman with a paintbrush adding decoration to the otherwise bland contraptions.

It was a fun bit of entertainment and nice to see some art being performed among all the business affairs.

Two tidbits: As seen at CLEANPOWER

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