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Ivanpah: On track or way off the mark?

By   /   July 8, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo from Flickr Commons

QUESTIONS ON THE HORIZON: The Ivanpah solar facility in the Mojave Desert was built with the help of a $1.6 billion federal loan but questions about its future loom.

By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org

Rising high over California’s Mojave Desert, the futuristic-looking Ivanpah solar project has been online for a year and a half.

Is it worth the expense?

Supporters say the plant employs cutting-edge technology that will ensure a cleaner energy future for its customers.

Critics include bird lovers who point to estimates of thousands of avian deaths associated with the plant and fiscal conservatives who complain that despite a $2.2 billion price tag, which included $1.6 billion in federal taxpayer dollars in the form of a guaranteed loan, Ivanpah hasn’t gotten halfway to its electricity-generation goals.

But now the project may face a more vexing question: Is the solar-thermal technology the plant is based on already outdated?

“The question I have about it is, what will be the future,” asks Robert Michaels, professor of economics who studies energy markets an utilities at Cal State Fullerton University. “It’s entirely possible that this is an aberration because of the strides that are being made in small, passive solar at this point.”

Solar-thermal technology has been around for years, but the Ivanpah plant dwarfs any other facilities that employed the technology by using 347,000 mirrors aimed at three “power towers” that rise 459 feet from the desert, capturing the sun’s rays to generate steam that can run a turbine.

The sprawling five-square mile array was designed by BrightSource Energy, is operated by NRG Energy and co-owned by Google and other investors.

But in the time since Ivanpah was built, the costs of utility-scale photovoltaic solar — known as PV — have dropped dramatically as PV’s efficiencies have improved.

So when it was reported data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed Ivanpah producing just 40 percent of its stated goal of 1 million megawatt-hours of annual electricity output, some energy analysts wondered if the promise of solar-thermal technology had already come and gone.

Ivanpah is “already irrelevant,” scientist and energy writer James Conca wrote in Fortune in November. 

“Thermal solar is just not cost effective compared to any base load generation, and is unlikely to ever be.”

Ivanpah officials say the 40 percent figure is misleading.

“Ivanpah is not only a new plant, but the first of its kind at this scale,” Joe Desmond, senior vice president for marketing and government affairs at BrightSource, wrote in a point-by-point defense posted on the company’s website. “A multi-year performance ‘learning curve’ has always been assumed since the earliest stages of planning and is typical for opening a major utility-scale thermal power plant of any kind.”

“What’s coming in the future?” said Michaels. “Are there going to be people who built standardized solar-thermal plants of this kind? Or is (solar-thermal and Ivanpah) going to be looked on as, hey, good try but the technology is not really there and the need for it really isn’t there.”

“Solar PV is an incredible technology, but there are advantages to solar-thermal that people are missing,” David Knox, spokesperson for NRG Energy, told Watchdog.org.

Knox said an advantage of solar-thermal is the clean electricity it produces. The Ivanpah facility, he said, is increasing its generation numbers each month.

“It’s like a gas-powered plant except that it uses solar power,” Knox said. “With Ivanpah, we are still producing as much power at 6 p.m. as we were doing at noon. With PV, pretty much by 6 p.m. you’re not really generating much power.”

After a critical story about Ivanpah appeared last month in the Wall Street Journal, NRG Renew president and CEO Tom Doyle responded with a letter.

“It’s true that Ivanpah isn’t generating at peak-performance levels today,” Doyle wrote. “But NRG never expected Ivanpah to be generating electricity at full capacity at this stage of operations. The plant projections have always assumed a four-year ramp rate to 100 percent capacity.”

Michaels, who is also an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute that espouses free-market solutions to energy issues, is skeptical.

“It’s interesting that they already predicted how long it’s going to be before things go really well,” Michaels told Watchdog.org. “Who came up with the figure of a four-year ramp? And on what basis would you derive a figure knowing what little we know about these kinds of plants? It sounds like something to placate impressionable readers and reporters.”

But Ivanpah officials say the four-year time frame has been in place since the plant’s inception.

“That was always the plan,” NRG’s Knox said in a telephone interview. “It was always a four-year ramp-up. That’s not placating. That’s what the original plan was.”

The plant needs to burn natural gas each morning to get started, and the Wall Street Journal story cited a document from the California Energy Commission saying Ivanpah needs four times more fossil fuel energy than expected.

On its website, BrightSource says the amount of natural gas it uses “remains within the de minimus requirement,” as defined by state renewable portfolio standards.

Photo from Flickr Commons

DEADLY SIGHT?: It’s been estimated that 3,500 birds were killed in the first year of operations at the Ivanpah solar facility. Some think birds may mistake the plant’s mirrors for water, causing them to crash.

Ivanpah has also been criticized by birding groups and was even described by scientists with the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory as a potential “mega-trap.”

A report released in April estimated 3,504 birds were killed in Ivanpah’s first year of operation, with reports that some birds, called “streamers,” were incinerated from the intense heat — what’s called “solar flux.”

Scientists are still trying to figure out why birds are attracted to the plant, with some speculating they may mistake the reflective mirrors for water and others theorizing the heat from the mirrors attracts insects, which lure birds and bats.

On its website, BrightSource concedes that “no one disputes” that solar flux presents a risk to birds.

But it also said that some collisions have sometimes been exaggerated, and it reported just 321 deaths between January and June 2014, of which 133 were related to solar flux.

“Ivanpah is committed to minimizing avian impacts at the projects utilizing our technology, including using technologically-advanced cameras, radars and audio systems to assist in detecting, monitoring and deterring bird movement in and around solar facilities,” the website says.

The Audubon Society doesn’t want to see any more solar-thermal projects OK’d until the issue at Ivanpah is resolved.

“This power tower technology has shown to have a large impact on birds, certainly more than other kinds of solar projects,” Garry George, chapter network director at Audubon California, told Watchdog.org. “We don’t think that this kind of technology should go forward, at least in California, until we know the actual impacts on birds.”

On the financial front, the federal government’s investment tax credit covering 30 percent of a company’s cost of construction for a new solar facility is set to expire in 2016.

But Knox said that won’t affect Ivanpah and its $1.6 billion loan from the feds.

“We took that as a cash grant based on construction costs, so that’s already been part of the (facility’s) economics,” Knox said. “Whether (the tax credits) are extended or not, it has no impact on our economics.”

Michaels said, “Solar is sacred right now. Nobody’s going to get punished very badly for building anything that says ‘solar’ in front of it that produces a megawatt hour a day.”

“What you see at Ivanpah is laying the groundwork for a future generation of solar-thermal,” Knox said. “Now will the economics work? What’s going to be the future for solar-thermal? I don’t know but the thing is, you don’t really know until you go there.”

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Rob formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.