A solar power plant in California, built with a $1.6 billion taxpayer-guaranteed loan, is in danger of being shut down entirely because it is producing only a fraction of the energy that the owners promised. The plant only generated 45 percent of expected power in 2014 and only 68 percent in 2015, according to government data.
What’s more, it is producing electricity at a cost of $200 per megawatt hour — six times the cost of electricity produced by a natural gas-fired plant.
These disappointing results at high prices could be the solar plant’s undoing. California Energy Commission regulators hoped the plant would help the state get 33 percent of its electricity from green sources, but now the plant could be shut down for not meeting its production promises.
Ivanpah — which is owned by BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google — uses more than 170,000 large mirrors, or heliostats, to reflect sunlight towards water boilers set atop 450-foot towers that create steam to turn giant turbines and generate electricity.
The plant was financed by $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy in 2011. When the solar plant opened in 2014, it was hailed as a great achievement by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
“This project speaks for itself,” Moniz said when the project went online in early 2014. “Just look at the 170,000 shining heliostat mirrors and the three towers that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty.”
“Ivanpah is the largest solar thermal energy facility in the world with 392 MW of capacity — meaning it can produce enough renewable electricity to power nearly 100,000 homes,” Moniz said.
Moniz’s optimism aside, the project faced huge problems from the beginning. NRG Energy asked the federal government for a $539 million federal grant to help pay off the $1.6 billion loan it got from the Energy Department.
NRG Energy said the plant had only produced about one-quarter of its expected output in the months after it opened. The company needed an infusion of cash to help keep the project afloat.
That was only the beginning of the company’s problems. Environmentalists quickly attacked the project for killing thousands of birds since it opened. Many birds were incinerated by the intense heat being reflected off Ivanpah’s heliostats.
he Associated Press cited statistics presented by environmentalists in 2014 that “about a thousand… to 28,000” birds are incinerated by Ivanpah’s heliostats every year.
“Forensic Lab staff observed a falcon or falcon-like bird with a plume of smoke arising from the tail as it passed through the flux field,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report from 2014.
“Immediately after encountering the flux, the bird exhibited a controlled loss of stability and altitude but was able to cross the perimeter fence before landing,” FWS reported.
There’s also the problem that pilots have when flying over or near the plant:
Pilots have also reported seeing a “nearly blinding” glare emanating from Ivanpah while flying over the solar plant. The Sandia National Laboratory reported in 2014 Ivanpah was “sufficient to cause significant ocular impact (potential for after-image) up to a distance of ~6 miles.”
The reason the owners requested the government-guaranteed loan is because no investor in their right mind would take a flyer on what amounts to gigantic experiment. A two billion dollar plant and it’s not supposed to make a profit — just to demonstrate that solar power can be generated at industrial levels.
But this turkey of a power plant can’t even do that. I don’t mind solar power at all and I can’t wait until it becomes economically viable. The photovoltaic systems are improving in efficiency all the time and the price is coming down.
But once again, government is deciding who wins and who loses and it gave the Democratic Party contributors at Google a taxpayer-guaranteed loan that, at present, looks like is going to turn around and bite us in our sustainable buttocks.
When it’s time to construct a solar mega-plant, investors will be beating down the doors looking to get in on it. That’s not happening now, nor is it likely to happen anytime soon