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Ivanpah Solar Thermal Officially Opens

ivanpah solar array

BrightSource Energy’s 377 MWe (net at peak) Ivanpah solar thermal power station officially opened on February 13, 2014. Secretary Earnest Moniz, in a rather amusing turn of phrase, called the plant a “shining example of how the United States is becoming a world leader in solar energy.” With more than 340,000 computer controlled mirrors spread over 3,500 acres of desert land focusing reflected sunlight onto three 459 foot tall towers, there is no doubt that the plant will shine brightly. As the DOE blog described it, Ivanpah is a “photogenic facility”.

With an expected capacity factor of 32% the plant should produce about a billion kilowatt-hours per year. According to most sources, the plant cost $2.2 billion, about $1.6 billion of which was financed with a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. Though that financial support is mentioned frequently, the project received several additional incentives that made it an attractive investment.

Since Ivanpah is a solar energy project and not a nuclear project, it was eligible for DOE loan guarantees under section 1705 as opposed to the section 1703. That means the government appropriated funds for the Credit Subsidy Cost, which is the fee that is supposed to reimburse the federal government for the risk associated with providing the loan guarantee.

In contrast, when Constellation Energy was offered a loan guarantee for the Calvert Cliff unit 2 nuclear project under the same 2005 Energy Policy Act program that provided Ivanpah’s funding, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) calculated a fee of $880 million for a $7.5 billion loan.

Since it began operation before 2016, Ivanpah was eligible for the 30% Investment Tax Credit in Lieu of Production Tax Credits that was initially devised as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and applied to solar thermal with subsequent legislation, so the developers will receive a refund of $660 million within the next 18 months.

Since Ivanpah is a solar thermal power system that began operating before the end of 2013, it qualifies for Modified Accelerated Cost-Recovery System (MACRS) + Bonus Depreciation (2008-2013). The value of that treatment varied depending on the profitability of the company taking the deduction, but there is an active market that enables even loss making companies like BrightSource to benefit from the favorable depreciation schedules.

The project also benefits from California’s renewables portfolio standard that mandates that utilities operating in the state purchase at least 33% of their power by 2020 from qualifying renewable energy sources. The Wall Street Journal reports that utilities have signed 25 year power purchase agreements to buy the power from Ivanpah, but neither the utilities nor the state utility regulator has disclosed the price that the utilities will pay. They have only stated that the costs will be rolled into the bundled rate paid by electricity customers.

If you are interested in a complete list of the incentives that made it possible for the Ivanpah developers to attract the “private” capital that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has often described as being very interested in solar energy development, I highly recommend reading the Risk Factors section of BrightSource’s S-1 filing for their aborted initial public offering.

As Kennedy described, the power purchase agreement encouraged by the renewable portfolio standard was one of the clinchers that made the deal attractive to his investment company.

Unlike Solyndra which received corporate financing from DOE, and which had no assurance that it would be able to sell its product, Ivanpah and the Central Valley Solar Ranch projects have contractual commitments from California’s largest utilities to buy all of its power at fixed prices. This is comparable to building a new hotel with the guarantee that it will have 100% occupancy rates for 20+ years.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in sources like KCET Rewire about the effect that the operation of the system is having on birds. As one might imagine, flying over a 4,000 acre field of shining mirrors that are focusing solar energy to specific points more than 450 feet above the ground might be a hazardous endeavor. Apparently air temperatures near the boilers can reach 1,000 F. Solar energy may be natural and renewable, but it is not necessarily safe in concentrated form.

The site’s construction was also delayed when the builders discovered that there were more desert tortoises on the site than initially expected.

It will be interesting to follow the performance of this project over time. There are a large number of moving parts – at least 340,000 of them keeping the mirrors aimed at the boilers – and all of the normal pumps, valves, pipes, and chemistry associated with operating high pressure steam systems. It will be wonderful if the system operates reliably, but I suspect that there will be more than a few unscheduled maintenance shutdowns that reduce the achieved capacity factor to something substantially less than the claimed 32%.

Does anyone know if there will be any publicly accessible performance reports submitted?

The post Ivanpah Solar Thermal officially opens appeared first on Atomic Insights.

Photo Credit: Large Solar Energy Projects/shutterstock


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Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 16, 2014

“It will be wonderful if the system operates reliably, but”

There is a always a but, isn’t there.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Feb 16, 2014


Performance is the issue I am interested in as well. All those thousands of mirrors each with its own individual motors needing to operate in synchronicity strike me as a maintenance nightmare.  Not to mention keeping the mirrors clean in the dusty, windy desert.

But I hate to be a nay-sayer.  Ivanpah is a beautiful work of industrial art but only time will tell if it is a breakthrough or a boondoggle.  

The proof will be in the performance.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 16, 2014

Too bad key technology used, direct steam generation, is already obsolete.  

Brightsource tried to simplify things and avoid the extra complexity of thermal energy storage (as is used at the operational 280 MWatt Solana Solar CSP plant in Arizona and the 110 MWatt Crescent Dunes CSP plant which is under construction in Nevada). 

Without energy storage, CSP has no advantage over PV (the output drops off just as people are getting home from work and powering up their kitchens, air conditioners, and lights).  The growing popularity of rooftop PV has pushed PV prices down below that of CSP, and as a result the CSP industry is dying.  Of course the PV boom has not bee accompanied by a battery technology boom, so affordable night time solar power is still a distant dream.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 16, 2014

Rod, thanks for digging through the details to show us the inequities in how loan guarantees are given to solar projects but sold to nuclear ones.

Donald Osborn's picture
Donald Osborn on Feb 16, 2014

Bird deaths associated with wind farms or the new Solar Power Tower in Ivanpah, CA have been used by the fossil fuel industry and their extreme conservative allies to try to tar renewables. However, these bird deaths are, in reality, very minor compared to almost any other cause and MUCH less than the bird deaths caused by fossil fuel and nuclear plants even on a per power generated basis []:

·         Wind farms kill roughly 0.27 birds per GWh.

·         Nuclear plants kill about 0.6 birds per GWh.  (2.2x wind)

·         Fossil-fueled power stations kill about 9.4 birds per GWh. (34.8x wind)

While fossil fuel plants are much more danger to birds than any wind or solar facility, according to US researchers, even fossil fuel plants do not make the top 10 causes of bird deaths which include: 1. Domestic and feral cats (200 million), 2. Power lines, collisions and electrocutions (130 million), 3. Collisions with houses or buildings (100 million) 4. Pesticides (70 million), and 5. Vehicle collisions (60 million) which includes some over 51,000 bird strikes by aircraft in a year. [  and]

So wind turbines make up only a very small fraction of a percent (about 0.009%) of man caused bird deaths and solar power towers even less. Nevertheless, The Heartland Institute and their climate-denying associates, generate regular “news” reports to promote the false the idea alive that “wind farms are bird killing machines” and they are now doing so on the Solar Power Towers based on a very few birds being burned by the concentrated light of the plant. It just ain’t true. Wind, and even more so solar, just are not significant contributors to the problem of bird deaths even though they continue to work to decrease an already low count. For these climate deniers to protest their concerns is just disingenuous at best

Donald Osborn's picture
Donald Osborn on Feb 16, 2014

By the way, I assume you know the photo used is not of a power tower.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 16, 2014

Rod, in a best case scenario it would take eight of these shiny solar facilities to make up for the annual energy generation of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, closed last year by NRDC and other groups.

Unlike San Onofre none of the power would be available at night, and virtually none during peak demand and cloudy days; it would cost four times as much, and require fossil fuel backup.

As Stravinsky remarked upon hearing Walt Disney’s adaptation of The Rite of Spring for Fantasia: it’s hard to comment on such unresisting imbecility.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 16, 2014

Donald, I was curious as to how avian mortality results at nuclear power plants, and it turns out that it occurs in the same way it does on bridges, and buildings and overpasses, and any tall structure. Birds fly into them.

Of course, there must be some kind of extenuating circumstances – if birds were so careless, natural selection would take care of the problem in a few generations. As it turns out, the source you quote (virulent antinuke activist Benjamin Sovacool) takes the biggest kill in Florida history over two foggy nights at Crystal River Power Plant, and assumes it happens every year. But there’s another problem – though Crystal River has been home to a nuclear station since 1977, the kills described were from collisions with fossil fuel chimneys in the same complex.

This is the kind of disingenuous nonsense which antinuclear groups excel in, and worthless for any kind of comparative purpose.

Donald Osborn's picture
Donald Osborn on Feb 17, 2014

Actually Bob, the inclusion of nuclear related deaths was only included to demonstrate how silly it is to “cry fowl” about bird deaths at wind and now at solar thermal facilities. It just is not a real nor serious problem. Despite this, wind, power tower, and nuclear operators continue to work to reduce already small numbers.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 17, 2014

Yes, the closure was a disaster for the environment and climate.  Note that each half of San Onofre put out 8x the power of Ivanpah.  Were it not for the intensely anti-nuclear climate and political impediments to a 20 license renewal, replacing the steam generators in both reactors would be a great clean energy investment (on the order of $1/Watt).

But California really needs to consider co-locating new nuclear and solar power plants.  It will be a tough sell to convince Californians to build new nuclear plants in densly populated coastal areas.  But in-land deserts, where these solar plants are being built would also be good locations for air-cooled nuclear plants.  The nukes would greatly boost the power production per unit area, and more effeciently use the transmission lines.  Surrounding a nuclear plant with a solar collection field would also create a visible deterent to protesters.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 17, 2014

I’d be inclined to agree to the silliness, if Wind did not kill endangered Raptors disproportionately.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 17, 2014

These CSP projects have no real future, as their price tag can fall only ~50% with more economy-of-scale.

So within 10 years they cannot compete at all against any other PV-panel based solar installation.
Even not if those PV installations have some battery storage attached.
Even wind will produce cheaper.

Furthermore those CSP projects are centralised power generators, while the future for reliable electricity delivery is with distributed power generators (just as distributed computing is more reliable than mainframe computing).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 18, 2014

Centralized is almost always more efficient. Most home sites are NOT good solar energy sites because of shadows from neighboring buildings, trees, etc and because of non sun tracking, very expensive storage, etc. When “magic machinery” (such as what comes after autonomous cars) become real, then we may have a real possibility of cheap, clean (and massively large) renewable energy fields. But fusion is a better long term goal!

For now, the least costly fossil free generation should be closed cycle nuclear because it requires far less material to generate an equal amount of base load electricity than any other source.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 18, 2014

Here’s another intrinsically more expensive non base load source…

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