The 2014 POWER Plant of the Year makes history, both as a project and as our cover story.

The Plant of the Year award goes to the most interesting, usually new, plant in the previous year. Sometimes it’s a “first,” like last year’s first U.S. ultrasupercritical (USC) coal plant. This year it’s the world’s largest solar thermal plant: Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.

Awards provide snapshots of what’s happening in an industry at a given time. By their nature, they are retrospective, especially for long-lead-time utility-scale generation. Though the John W. Turk, Jr. plant was last year’s Plant of the Year, it may well be the last USC plant built in the U.S. The same may be true for Ivanpah and concentrating solar power (CSP) towers. For a number of reasons, including the decreasing cost of distributed photovoltaic generation vis á vis utility-scale CSP, Ivanpah may go down in the record books as an extra-large pilot project. Nevertheless, it is a noteworthy facility for all sorts of reasons, as you’ll see in our cover story.

For nine out of the past 11 years, the Plant of the Year has been some sort of coal plant. This year, for the first time, it’s a renewable plant. That only seems fitting, especially as the importance of renewable generation increases globally.

A Shifting Balance of Power

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, for 2013, the main sources of U.S. generation were: coal, 39%; natural gas, 27%; nuclear, 19%; hydropower, 7%; and other renewables (biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind), 6%. Just over 50% of all new U.S. capacity in 2013 came from natural gas (no surprise), while solar accounted for 22%, coal added 11%, and wind accounted for 8%; other renewables made up the balance.

Globally, a report by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that renewables accounted for 23% of generation by 2012; the EIA estimates global renewables generation for 2011 was 21% and projects it will reach 25% by 2040.

Of course, we’ve all seen the balance of power sources shift in response to everything from politics to markets to natural disasters, which is why POWER award winners aren’t chosen simply based on what technology is in ascendency. We’re also looking for innovation, best practices, and projects that help advance the sector in some way. In several ways—including technology improvements, financing, and ownership profile—Ivanpah moves the needle.

Innovation and Risk

Innovation almost always entails risk, and the utility industry is notoriously risk-averse. When significant technology advances are attempted, cost and schedule overruns almost always enter the picture.

In the U.S., cost and schedule overruns for nuclear plants are legendary. More recently, new-technology coal plants are seeing the same sorts of escalations. For example, the cost of Southern Company’s Kemper County integrated gasification combined cycle plant (designed to capture 65% of carbon dioxide emissions) has risen from roughly $2 billion in 2006 to well over $5 billion as of mid-2014. Anticipated plant startup has been delayed by a year and is now expected in the first half of 2015.

Developing Ivanpah wasn’t fast or cheap, either, for an even broader set of reasons than those affecting advanced coal plant development. Finding a balance between potentially increased customer costs and more efficient and cleaner generating technologies is never easy; however, if utilities, equipment manufacturers, and investors never made that effort, we’d still be reading by smokey kerosene lamps and heating our homes with particulate-spewing carbon sources (as is still the case in some parts of the world).

Award-Worthy Projects

It could be argued that every power plant, new or improved, is a winner because it supplies much-needed electricity. However, to be an award winner, a project needs to do something distinctive—be the first, biggest, or most efficient; have overcome daunting obstacles; or have developed an ideal solution to a particular problem. This year’s slate of POWER award winners, covered in our August through December issues, has an even more interesting mix of projects than in years past. It’s almost as if economic and environmental constraints are making developers and owners think outside the familiar boxes.

For example, combined heat and power is becoming a more important component in more places. And this year we are giving the Marmaduke Award to a combined cycle plant that was disassembled and moved to a completely new location to provide both power and thermal energy.

And our first Water Award goes to a plant that was committed to finding a unique solution to flue gas desulfurization wastewater treatment that values both environmental protection and economic rationality.

In our awards coverage in the months ahead you’ll read about very large plants and very small ones, because there are critical roles for both scales. It’s also clear from the nominations received that Asia is actively building considerable new capacity. It’s not only large nations like China and India that are developing large-scale infrastructure, but also smaller nations like South Korea building many right-sized plants in record time to meet growing demand.

To all of you who work every day to make your company worthy of notice in one of our award-winning projects, congratuations—and keep up the good work!

Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Editor (@GailReit, @POWERmagazine). This year, for the first time, it’s a renewable plant.