By Vidhan Rana

The solar industry has been creating a lot of buzz around the country, especially in the Southwestern states. Our analysis revealed that more than $4 billion dollars has been invested by companies in this industry, creating over 10,000 jobs, since 2003. The map below shows the locations of the solar investment announcements. The red dots represent new investments and the blue dots represent expansion announcements made by existing companies.

While a large majority of the solar industry announcements are concentrated around the Western and Southwestern states as shown on the map, states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, with their strong manufacturing expertise, are also faring well. United Solar Ovonics, a Rochester Hills, MI, -based company that manufactures photovoltaic solar cells, has invested over $400 million in Michigan and has created almost 1,000 jobs over the last 3 years. In August 2008, Flabeg–a Germany-based manufacturer of high-tech glass and mirror applications–announced that it is building a 209,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Findley, PA, that will eventually employ around 300 workers.

Flabeg makes mirrors for utility-scale concentrating solar power plants. While a lot of attention is paid to photovoltaic, a technology that converts the sun’s energy directly into electricity, concentrated solar power (CSP) technology uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect the solar energy and convert it to heat –which can then be used to produce electricity.

While CSP power plants represent only a small proportion of the electricity generated from solar technologies, 5%, or 419 MW out of 8775 MW, contribution from CSP power plants is projected to increase dramatically over the next few years due to some recent technological advancements. One notable technology that is currently being developed in Spain is the world’s first thermal storage plant. Thermal storage allows a solar plant to produce electricity even after the sun goes down–this particular 50 MW plant in Spain is capable of producing electricity for more than 7 hours without sunlight. The Solar Energy Industry Association reports that CSP facilities with over 6,000 MW of generation potential are currently under development in the United States.

CSP plants are not limited to the Southwest. In December 2008, FPL Energy began construction on a 75 MW CSP facility in Martin County, Florida. This facility will become the first CSP power plant outside the Southwest. It is also the world’s first hybrid solar plant that uses solar-thermal in combination with a combined-cycle natural gas plant. FPL Energy is building the solar facility beside its natural gas plant, using 180,000 reflective mirrors over roughly 500 acres of land.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), approximately 455 construction jobs are created for every 100 MW of installed CSP. In February, a 280 MW CSP plant was announced near Phoenix, Arizona, which is estimated to create around 2,000 construction jobs during the plant’s construction over the next two years.  CSP’s supply chain includes materials (e.g. steel, plastic, copper, brass, concrete, aluminum, etc.) and components (e.g. mirrors, motion systems, fasteners, oil pumps, valves, circuit boards, temperature sensors, etc.). According to an analysis by NREL, a 100 MW CSP plant would generate around 4,000 direct and indirect job-years compared to approximately 500 job-years for a combined-cycle fossil fuel plant of the same capacity. Translating this to the 6,000 MW currently under development, CSP technology alone can help generate approximately 240,000 jobs in the country over the next 3 to 5 years. In terms of permanent jobs, a 100 MW CSP plant is estimated to create around 90 jobs in areas such as administration, operation, maintenance, service contracting, water maintenance, spare parts and solar field parts replenishment. This compares to around 10 to 60 jobs for a similar-sized conventional coal or natural gas plant.

Investing in concentrated solar power technology is not only a smart way to reduce our fossil fuel consumption and thus our carbon emissions, but also a great way to stimulate our lagging economy.