Florida's DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center is the largest solar plant in the nation and was a showpiece of President Obama's clean energy initiative. More than 90,000 solar panels combine to generate enough power to run some 3,000 homes in the Sunshine State. At an opening ceremony for the plant in October, Obama said that it was "about time" such a facility came online. Yet in the midst of a painful recession and with electricity demand actually falling in the United States last year, the drive for more solar power will be slow and costly. [See photos of the DeSoto Next Generation plant.]
Solar power has long been the holy grail of energy production. It is clean, and sunshine is free and in inexhaustible supply. But it remains a tiny part of worldwide energy production, about 0.02 percent. Of course, solar power has made some gains from the days of powering just calculators. Solar cells now top streetlights and stoplights, roadside emergency phones, small homes off the power grid, and oil rigs offshore. The conversion of solar energy into electric power on an industrial level, on the other hand, has remained a distant and elusive goal.
There are several serious technological hurdles that prevent solar power from cracking into the power-generation market in a major way. Moreover, private investors and public-policy makers are leery of investing heavily in technologies that may be leapfrogged by a far more efficient technology in the coming months or years. Large-scale production will continue only in fits and starts, experts say, until solar power has a solid track record of generating with equal consistency both power and revenue.
A chief inhibitor of solar power's growth has been the country's antiquated power grid, which generally can't incorporate solar power generated in homes into the grid. But the federal government has committed more than $11 billion to modernize that system.
High maintenance. Another speed bump on the road to sustainable solar power is the cost of the raw materials. One explanation for the high cost is that solar cell producers have to compete with computer-chip makers for the same raw materials. And, like microprocessors in a PC, solar cells are surprisingly fragile. Keeping an entire field of them in service can be prohibitively expensive because they require nearly constant maintenance.
The solar array in Florida is the country's biggest, but it doesn't seem destined to hold that title for long. Larger plants are now under construction in Nevada and California, both with designs slightly different from the Florida facility's. But whatever the superlative, the plant will be closely watched as it begins to mine the nation's and the Sunshine State's most abundant natural resource.