Tag Archives: Solar Thermal Installations

A Huge Solar Plant Caught on Fire, and That’s the Least of Its Problems

By Sarah Zhang, WIRED

Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar plant, is a glittering sea of mirrors, concentrating sunlight into three glowing towers. It is a futuristic vision rising out of the Mojave desert. But from the day the plant opened for business in 2014, critics have said the technology at Ivanpah is outdated and too finicky to maintain.

The latest problem? A fire at one of the plant’s three towers on Thursday, which left metal pipes scorched and melted. As the plant dealt with engineering hiccups, Ivanpah initially struggled to fulfill its electricity contract, and it would have had to shut down if the California Public Utilities Commission didn’t throw it a bone this past March. “Ivanpah has been such a mess,” says Adam Schultz, program manager at the UC Davis Energy Institute and former analyst for the CPUC. “If [the fire] knocks them offline, it’s going to further dig them in.” On top of the technical challenges, the plant has had to deal with PR headaches like reports of scorched birds and blinded pilots from its mirrors.

Ivanpah’s biggest problem, though, is hard economics. When the plant was just a proposal in 2007, the cost of electricity made using Ivanpah’s concentrated solar power was roughly the same as that from photovoltaic solar panels. Since then, the cost of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels has plummeted to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (compared to 15 to 20 cents for concentrated solar power) as materials have gotten cheaper. “You’re not going to see the same thing with concentrated solar power plants because it’s mostly just a big steel and glass project,” says Schultz. It can only get so much cheaper.

Read full article at WIRED

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Ivanpah plant faced emissions deadline

By David Danelski, The Press-Enterprise

The operators of a Mojave Desert solar power plant at the center of the Obama administration’s push to reduce carbon emissions faced an unusual task this week. They had to prove to state air quality officials that they were complying with California’s cap-to-trade program to get carbon polluters to reduce their emissions.

The Ivanpah solar plant in San Bernardino County makes electricity by focusing heat from thousands of mirrors onto water boilers mounted on top of three towers. Steam from the water then turns turbines that generate power. But the plant also needs to burn significant amounts of carbon-emitting natural gas to operate and thus is required to be in the state’s cap-and-trade program.

This week, Ivanpah and the state’s other carbon emitting power plants had to meet a Nov. 4 deadline to demonstrate how they had complied with the state’s cap and trade program this year and last, said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, which oversees the cap-and-trade program. The power plants needed to show that they had reduced their carbon emissions by 10 percent or prove they had complied by buying pollution credits from other firms that had cut their own carbon emissions by more than 10 percent, Clegern said.

It is not clear exactly how the Ivanpah plant complied with cap and trade rules. The paperwork that plant operators submitted to the state is considered confidential, Clegern said. David Knox, a spokesman for NRG Energy, which operates the plant, said in an email that “Ivanpah complied through California carbon allowances and approved greenhouse gas offsets.”

Read full article in the Press-Enterprise

Related article: Desert plant has pollution problem – Oct. 16, 2015

Desert plant has pollution problem

By David Danelski, The Press-Enterprise

A solar power plant at the center of the Obama administration’s push to reduce America’s carbon footprint by using millions of taxpayer dollars to promote green energy has its own carbon pollution problem.

The Ivanpah plant in the Mojave Desert uses natural gas as a supplementary fuel. Data from the California Energy Commission show that the plant burned enough natural gas in 2014–its first year of operation–to emit more than 46,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s nearly twice the pollution threshold for power plants or factories in California to be required to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions. The same amount of natural gas burned at a conventional power plant would have produced enough electricity to meet the annual needs of 17,000 homes–or roughly a quarter of the Ivanpah’s total electricity projection for 2014.

The plant’s operators say they are burning small amounts of natural gas in order to produce steam to jump-start the solar generating process. They said burning natural gas has always been part of the process. David Knox, a spokesman for NRG Energy, which runs the facility, said the plant still meets a state requirement that no more than 5 percent of its electricity production come from burning fossil fuel.

This rule, however, does not factor in the gas burned to heat water before enough steam is generated to produce electricity. That distinction is significant because it could affect the plant’s customers. Under state law, alternative energy plants can’t use more than 5 percent “nonrenewable” fuel for electricity generation. If a plant goes over that threshold, its electricity can’t count toward the state’s renewable energy goals.

Read full article in the Press-Enterprise

California’s huge solar projects causing energy poverty

By Thomas D. Elias, The Los Angeles Daily News

When ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made their way onto a hot, dry alkali flat just west of the Interstate 15 freeway between Barstow and Las Vegas in late 2010, all anyone knew for sure was that they were opening an era of giantism in solar electricity in California. What no one could predict was that they were also putting a stamp of approval on the spread of energy poverty in many parts of this state.

The Ivanpah dry lake on which the two former officials proudly strode that day now hosts a huge solar farm easily visible as a glassy sea of deep blue to travelers just southwest of the California-Nevada state line. Ivanpah, built largely with federal loans, is the second-largest of half a dozen desert-region solar thermal developments that produce many thousands of megawatts for privately-owned utilities like Southern California Edison Co., Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

Besides paying for the energy produced by those plants, including construction costs, the big utilities have erected hundreds of miles of power transmission lines to bring the sun’s energy to big cities in all parts of California. When they do that, they receive about 14 percent profit on their constructions costs each year for 20 years.

The solar farms are part of a plan first adopted by executive order by Schwarzenegger and later expanded on by current Gov. Jerry Brown. By 2020, California is to produce one-third of its electricity from renewable sources. By 2030, that’s supposed to rise to one-half. Of course, the current four-year drought has tossed a wrench into some of the calculations behind those mandates, causing enormous cuts in the power produced by hydroelectric dams for more than a century.

Read full article in the Los Angeles Daily News

The lonely energy projects left behind by the clean energy evolution

By Katie Fehrenbacher, Fortune

As clean energy evolves into a major industry, pioneering but no longer competitive energy projects act as a reminder of how fast technology is changing. Ultra low cost solar panels and lithium ion batteries are remaking how homeowners, businesses and utilities use energy. But dramatically cheaper prices for these technologies in recent years also means that other early innovations once seen as the future are now far less competitive. The result: A number of one-of-a-kind experimental energy projects that may be the first and last of their kinds.

Solar thermal technology was one of the biggest and most highly touted industries to be bypassed partly by the cheaper alternative. At the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, companies built a handful of big solar thermal projects in the U.S. Southwest. The most well-known of these is Ivanpah, a Hoover Dam-sized concentrated solar thermal plant built on five acres in the California Mojave Desert outside of Las Vegas. Ivanpah uses 347,000 mirrors and three huge 450-foot towers to produce enough electricity for 140,000 average American homes. It took more than seven years of development, including over three years of construction, and a $1.6 billion U.S. government loan to get built.

Even at Ivanpah’s opening, the uncertain future of solar thermal technology in the U.S. was one of the big topics of the day, and a year and a half later, and with even lower solar panel prices, it’s looking even less promising. The Solar Energy Industry Association recently called the prospects for new U.S. solar thermal plants in 2016 “bleak” considering the higher costs, the long time lines and the impending reduction of an important federal tax credit. Three big solar thermal projects from major developers have been put on hold indefinitely.

Even photovoltaic solar projects that employ traditional silicon solar panels will look quite different a few years from now than they do today. In recent months a series of massive solar panel farms have started production in California; the biggest among them produce 550 megawatts and 579 megawatts, making them the world’s largest. But projects of that size—spurred by California utilities’ attempts to meet a state clean power mandate—will probably be rarer going forward. In the future, utilities will likely propose solar panel plants that produce closer to tens to a 100 megawatts, because they are far easier to get permitted and approved by regulators.

Read full article from Fortune