Let a thousand solar parks bloom.

NRG Energy announced today that its solar subsidiary, NRG Solar, will become the owner of the California Valley Solar Ranch (Dressing) PV park being developed by SunPower. The 250-megawatt plant -- the biggest one ever developed by SunPower in the U.S. -- will begin construction in the second half of next year and start producing at least some power by the end of 2011. The bulk of the plant will come online in 2012 and 2013.

Projects like this are expected to be one of the drivers for the U.S. and global solar industry. Right now, utility-scale solar parks in the U.S. are capable of generating less than 250 megawatts, according to GTM Research -- approximately the same amount of solar power installed in one of the slowest months ever (February 2010) for the German solar industry.

But contracts have been signed to build nearly five gigawatts worth of utility-scale PV parks between now and 2015 in the U.S. The declining price of solar modules is also making these large module parks more attractive than solar thermal parks. Even if only half of those projects ever see the light of day, it would represent a ten-fold increase in the amount of utility-scale solar fields in the U.S. over a five-year period.

Utility PV in the U.S. is a $1 billion market in 2010 and is projected to reach $8 billion by 2015,” said Shayle Kann, GTM Research’s Managing Director of Solar Research, who issued a report today on utility-scale solar. “Solar industry players across the value chain have taken note, flocking to the market en masse to take advantage.”

Late last month, NRG announced it would invest $300 million into Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah solar thermal power plant. NRG also owns the 21-megawatt photovoltaic facility in Blythe, California, currently the state's largest.

SunPower, along with First Solar, Sempra Generation and SunEdison, has been one of the leaders in the U.S. when it comes to large-scale PV projects. First Solar has the largest market share with 40 percent of the contracted capacity, but SunPower has won its share of contracts. For SunPower and First Solar, utility deals are particularly important because they can be used to soak up production of solar modules. (Generally, PV manufacturers with development arms will help get a project off the ground and build it, but then sell it off to a power provider.)

The picture, however, is changing. In September, Sharp purchased Recurrent Energy for $305 million. Iberdrola, juwi and several Chinese manufacturers also want to expand their presence in the U.S. utility market. While some like SunPower have said they will not develop their own projects, all are scrambling to find development partners.