California currently has just 524 solar projects over 1 megawatt (MW) — but  an incredible 17,707 such solar projects will be on the grid by 2017 [PDF]. This is a huge change! And California is not the only state with such massive change coming.

The U.S. is about to go through an incredible metamorphosis when it comes to energy generation. When you step back from all the individual items of news about large-scale renewable projects and total them up, you see that we have never been through anything like this before. We are about to see a profound change in how we power our homes and businesses with power from utilities, as well as many small distributed solar sources.

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image via Abengoa

The solar industry’s list of the 17,707 solar projects over 1 MW about to be added in the next few years consists of 3,373 now under construction, and another 14,334 in the pipeline — at some stage in the approval process.

Solar is ideally suited to being a distributed energy source — on many, many factory rooftops, for example. A Costco or other big box store, or manufacturing plant, could host a 1 MW project. So some of these projects could be as small as the size of a city block or so.

Another clue to what’s in the pipeline is to look at just how many contracts the three big California utilities have signed with renewable developers for the huge solar and wind projects from 100 MW to 1,000 MW.

At between 100 MW and 1,000 MW, these are more the size of traditional power plants. The first few of these contracted projects began to come online in dribs and drabs by 2009 — but the entire 110 projects have start dates up till 2017.

According to this excel database with the California Public Utilities Commission, there are 110 such projects that signed contracts with California utilities. These are sited not only in California, but also in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming and as far away as Canada — all to be shipping renewable electrons from renewables to supply the huge market of 33 million people on the California grid.

These large-scale projects are nearly all wind and solar. The solar is all the different kinds of solar thermal technologies and solar PV (both traditional and thin film). There are a few geothermal projects. There was one hydro and one biomass, but both were withdrawn.

Not every project goes forward.  Of the 110 power purchase sgreements (PPAs) – contracts for power with one of the three big utilities in California — 18 have since been withdrawn, the contract was canceled, or the application was rejected somewhere along in the permitting process.

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image via Shutterstock

PPAs are a very different way to get power on the grid. In the past, many utilities owned coal plants or natural gas or nuclear plants.

“PG&E does not procure nuclear power through PPAs,”  Lynsey Paulo of California utility Pacific Gas and Electric told Earthtechling, adding that gas is procured only partially through PPAs.

PPAs protect the ratepayer from cost overruns. Solar and wind companies agree to supply power at a set price for 20 or 25 years. If something goes wrong, and they cannot do it, the utility can cancel and find another developer who can.

“Our Form PPA contains provisions that allow for PPA termination when the developer does not meet project milestones in a timely fashion” Paulo added.  ”This would include, for example, failure to meet Guaranteed Construction Start Dates for certain reasons or failure to meet Guaranteed Commercial Operation Dates for certain reasons.”

By contrast, says Paulo, owning a plant is very different from contracting for the power.

“The nuclear power that we provide to our customers comes from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, a facility that is owned and operated by PG&E,” she added.  ”Therefore, the building of, costs for, and timeline associated with the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant were subject to regulatory oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and California Public Utilities Commission.”

So ratepayers will not be holding the bag if a solar or wind project fails. Its contract gets canceled. Tough for the solar or wind industry, but good for ratepayers.

Yet another sign of the huge change coming is the latest update of solar projects on public lands from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This now stands at a simply extraordinary 17,298 MW (17-plus gigawatts) and that’s just solar, and just the solar on public lands.

This new summary from the U.S. Department of the Interior is another huge jump of solar on public lands from when I last updated this list just months ago. At that point the (already astounding) total stood at 13 GW, including wind and geothermal. The latest update from the BLM lists 17 GW — just from solar projects alone!

So often we look at each individual news item, the trees, and miss the forest. Assuming that you care about the future of our civilization, it is easy to get dismayed by all the obstacles. We seem to be unable to get the clean energy on the grid that we need in order to combat climate change.

News of a renewable energy bankruptcy or of the recent solar non-IPO, or of a filibuster of yet another clean energy bill – yet another state legislature bowing to ALEC in cutting back its renewable energy standards or other depressing setback — might make it seem that all is lost, that renewables are getting clobbered, that the bad guys are winning, and that we will never make the switch from fossil fuels before the tipping points for catastrophic climate change are breached.

That’s when it is good to step back and take a look at the big picture. And in this case I do mean BIG.

These are simply massive changes coming — on a scale last seen only when the U.S. switched from horses to horsepower.