American Elephants

World’s Largest Solar Plant Wants Federal Grant to Pay Off Federal Loan. by The Elephant's Child


It all seemed so wonderful. The earth would be illumined by the natural power of the sun and the wind. No more smelly fossil fuels polluting the air, just warm, natural sunlight and gentle breezes. Lovely, lovely pipe dreams.

Ivanpah is the largest solar thermal plant in the world. It went live commercially in February, 2014. It is a five square mile layout of nearly 350,000 computer-controlled mirrors, each about the size of a garage door. They reflect sunlight to boilers at the top of 450 foot-tall central towers, taller than the Statue of Liberty. The boilers generate steam which drives turbines to produce electricity.

The mirrors follow the trajectory of the sun. The mirrors incinerate birds in puffs of smoke — they call them “streamers.” The plant is located near the California-Nevada border, about 45 miles southwest of Las Vegas. It’s a $2.2 billion complex of three generating units, which together are capable of producing nearly 400 megawatts — enough to power 140,000 homes. Major hazard to airplanes.

The complex is owned by NRG Energy, Google and BrightSource Energy. Google said in 2011 that it would invest $168 million in the project while BrightSource contributed $1.6 billion in loans guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Energy. This is a big deal for solar, as it presently accounts for less than 1 percent of the nations power needs.

The Ivanpah solar electric generating plant is owned by Google and renewable energy giant NRG, which are responsible for paying off their federal loan. If approved by the U.S. Treasury, the two corporations will not use their own money, but taxpayer cash to pay off 30 percent of the cost of their plant, but taxpayers will receive none of the millions in revenues the plant will generate over the next 30 years.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration data say the cost of generating a megawatt-hour of power in a traditional coal plant is around $100.  For solar-thermal power, the cost goes up to around $261 for generating a megawatt-hour of power. And this makes sense because?

The Mojave Desert plant was built with the aid of a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee. For the eight-month period from January through August, its three units generated 254,263 megawatt-hours of electricity according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. That is roughly one-quarter of the annual one million-plus megawatt-hours promised. 

Output picked up in the sunny months of May, June, July and August, but even the higher production rate  would translate to annual electricity output at least 40 percent below target.

Another sign of the plant’s early operating woes: In March, the owners sought permission to use 60 percent more natural gas in auxiliary boilers than was allowed under the plant’s certification, a request that was approved in August.

Note: The plant requires backup from natural gas. (The sun drops beneath the horizon at night). Growing pains? There’s a realization that the plant needs to boost its natural gas consumption. The sun didn’t shine enough.

The fuel is used with auxiliary boilers that prime the system in the early morning, allowing the plant to begin generating electricity as soon as possible after sunrise; to maintain performance during intermittent cloud cover; and to eke out more energy as the sun fades at the end of the day.

California power companies, mandated by the State of California, are required to provide 30% of their power from “renewable” resources.  Since Ivanpah isn’t producing enough electricity to meet payments on its loan, Google and NRG are quietly asking the Department of Energy for a $540 million federal grant to pay down their $1.6 billion loan, and to ge an extension on loan payments until the ARRA tax credits arrive.

Google and NRG want the taxpayers to pony up for another $540 million grant — because the sun isn’t shining as much as they thought it would.

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