As the United States’ renewable energy sector grows by leaps and bounds, Pacific Gas & Electric recently announced plans for two gigantic photovoltaic plants in California. The solar installations will be constructed by Sunpower and Optisolar, whose 550 Megawatt plant will best the current proposed largest solar installation in the nation by 50 megawatts. The combined output of both plants will total 800 megawatts – enough to power 239,000 homes!

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The two planned solar farms will produce 1.65 billion kilowatt hours per year, generating 12 times as much electricity as the largest grid-tied photovoltaic installation in the world today. By contrast, Spain has a 23 megawatt plant, Germany is building a 40 megawatt plant, and at 14 megawatts the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada is currently the largest already-built solar power installation in the U.S.

The two companies are OptiSolar, which will provide 550 megawatts, and SunPower, which will provide 250 megawatts. SunPower’s panels are mounted at a 20-degree angle, facing south, and pivot from east to west in concert with the sun. OptiSolar’s panels are installed at a fixed angle, and are larger, less efficient, and much less expensive, so each company’s cost-per-watt of energy is similar.

Both designs aim to produce power best during high-demand peak hours of the afternoon. The plants would use existing transmission lines to convey electricity to customers, and the plants are being built on previously disturbed but unused farmland.

California law mandates that Pacific Gas & Electric must use renewable sources to produce 20% of its electricity by 2010. But the OptiSolar and SunPower plants are not expected to be up and running until 2012 and 2013, so the utility company may have to ask for leniency from the state.

Although the plans are not set in stone and the companies still need to secure numerous permits, this development is significant enough that it should encourage a significant uptake in solar power investments.

+ OptiSolar

+ SunPower

+ Pacific Gas & Electric