Operational Hiccups at Ivanpah Solar Worry Me
The world’s largest solar thermal facility was brightly unveiled to the American Public in Ivanpah, CA by the U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on February 13. The project, designed and sponsored by BrightSource Energy and owned by BrightSource, NRG Energy, and Google, cost $2.2 billion and received $1.6 billion federal loan guarantees through the Department of Energy.
NRG Energy tweeted: “Thrilled to announce: Ivanpah is fully operational & delivering solar power to California!” And Ernie Moniz exclaimed: “This is fantastic news! I’m hoping this is only the beginning of many to come. This is the type of energy we need.”
But the operational data negate this optimism, and I’m worried that this concentrated solar project may not fare much better than several other projects that have not turned out well. Generally, operational complexity and risk do not deter me. But when a project utilizes public money and goodwill to absorb risks and generate private profits, even a partial failure could become a lightning rod for public criticism.
At this time, the outlook is not positive. The project has 392 MW capacity (according to DOE). It consists of three towers, as tall as 40-story tall buildings, that are surrounded by 173,500 heliostat mirrors that focus the sunlight to generate heated steam to drive the power generators.
Thus, the project should generate over 2,000 MWh (rated capacity times six hours per day) on an average day. That would more than double the production of thermal solar energy in the state of California. The facility has undergone five months of testing and the first tower was connected to the grid in December 2013. What does the data show us?
The data reveals a shocking disparity. Since the official inauguration of the facility, the state has produced less solar thermal energy than it did on corresponding dates a year ago. The charts below, which I complied from data published by the California Independent System Operator (CaISO), provide side-by-side comparison of daily energy output for years 2014 and 2013. You can see that the blue bars, which represent current year’s output, are generally lower than past year’s output.
Could this disparity be caused by unusual weather affecting California? We can partly answer that question by looking at the energy output of solar panels in the state.
Wow! You can clearly see the impressive growth in solar installations across the state, but you also see that these days were not consistently dark days.
If weather is not the culprit here, what is? Clearly, the facility is not ready for prime time. For the sake of the alternative energy industry (which includes me), I hope there are no fatal flaws here and the problems will eventually be righted. But there has been a lack of transparency: we still don’t know how much the utilities are paying for its electricity under 25-year contracts. There is no sharing of data on operational status which we deserve to know as tax payers. Finally, there has been a lack of good judgment. I wish the project stakeholders had shown a little more restraint in expressing unbridled enthusiasm on February 13.