News & Politics

World's Largest Solar Plant Bursts Into Flames

This Aug. 13, 2014 photo shows an array of mirror at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near Primm, Nev. The site uses over 300,000 mirrors to focus sunlight on boilers' tubes atop 450 foot towers heating water into steam which in turn drives turbines to create electricity. New estimates for the plant near the California-Nevada border say thousands of birds are dying yearly, roasted by the concentrated sun rays from the mirrors. (AP Photo/John Locher)

A fire broke out yesterday at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the world’s largest solar thermal power station, causing the plant to shut down one of its electricity-generating water towers and leaving the facility at one-third capacity.

The $2.2 billion station — $1.6 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans — is run by a consortium that includes BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google. Its 350,000 mirrors reflect sunlight on the water towers, creating steam which turns the turbines that produce the electricity.

The complex sprawls over five square miles and firefighters had no easy task battling the blaze.

Associated Press:

Firefighters had to climb some 300 feet up a boiler tower at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California after fire was reported on an upper level around 9:30 a.m., fire officials said.

The plant works by using mirrors to focus sunlight on boilers at the top of three 459-foot towers, creating steam that drive turbines to produce electricity.

But some misaligned mirrors instead focused sunbeams on a different level of Unit 3, causing electrical cables to catch fire, San Bernardino County, California fire Capt. Mike McClintock said.

David Knox, spokesman for plant operator NRG Energy, said it was too early to comment on the cause, which was under investigation.

The fire was located about two-thirds of the way up the tower, said Jeff Buchanan of Nevada’s Clark County Fire Department, which also responded to the blaze.

This is just the latest setback for the facility, which drastically over-promises its benefits.

The Daily Caller wrote this a couple of months ago when regulators were trying to decide whether to pull the plug on the project:

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.

The 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.

Also, the plant only generated 45 percent of expected power in 2014 and only 68 percent in 2015, according to government data. It now produces about 75% of what it told the government it would be producing by this point.

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.

In short, the reason it needed a loan from the government is because no private investor is daffy enough to throw money at it. And that is why these boondoggles are a waste of money. When the government picks winners and losers, the taxpayer ends up holding the bag.

The fire raises a question that the government should have asked before it gave the $1.6 billion loan and then threw good money after bad by infusing the project with an additional $539 million.

Is a solar power-generating plant this size worth the cost? Not if it produces electricity at a laughable six times the cost of a fossil fuel plant. Not if it kills tens of thousands of birds. Not if a mere misalignment of mirrors can start a serious fire. And not if the purveyors of this crony capitalism aren’t risking a dime to build it.

This plant will be government subsidized for as long as it sits in the desert as a “demonstration” project. Except, the only thing it demonstrates is the stupidity of our government.