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Solar Panels Start to Outshine Mirrors

As prices for photovoltaic cells tumble, developers are abandoning solar thermal plants

Factories in China have been churning out solar panels so fast that prices have plunged. Just ask the folks at Solyndra, the bankrupt photovoltaic-cell maker that has gotten the Obama Administration into hot water over loan guarantees. Those Chinese manufacturers are now disrupting another corner of the solar industry: so-called solar thermal installations, which make electricity by bouncing sunlight off mirrors to boil water, creating steam that drives turbines.

At least four companies have abandoned plans for solar thermal plants in the U.S. in favor of electricity-producing solar cells, which have fallen in price by nearly half this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That means it may no longer make sense to complete many solar thermal projects, typically vast installations in deserts that take years to build. For solar thermal, “the future in the U.S. looks very challenging,” says Brett Prior, an analyst at energy consultancy GTM Research.