American Elephants

Whoops! $2.2 billion high-tech solar project delivers only 40% of expected electricity by The Elephant's Child

Environmentalists have long been sure that if we could just eliminate things that are not “natural” from our lives, live in harmony with nature, then the world would be a better place. Relying on the Sun and the Wind were right at the top of the list.  We should eliminate chemicals from our diet, stop cutting down trees, save endangered species but stop putting animals in cages, and just quit eating meat. The very word “natural” moved right to the top of the advertising buzz-word list.

So it is no surprise that in the panic about Global Warming, which was the next big thing after we stopped panicking about a new ice age in the 1970s, and the threat of a nuclear winter receded, we turned to trying to harness the power of the sun. Sensible people pointed out that the power of the sun was very diffuse, the sun had the habit of sinking below the horizon at night, and there was the problem of cloudy days and clouds on even nice days. But this is America, and the Twenty-First Century, as we are so frequently reminded, and we have technology!

The 2.2 billion Ivanpah solar project in California’s Mojave Desert is definitely high-tech. Those tiny white rectangles in the picture above are more than 170,000 mirrors, each about the size of a garage door, that rotate to follow the path of the sun across the sky. Solar-thermal technology was meant to supersede old-fashioned solar panel farms. The mirrors would reflect the sunlight to the huge “power towers,” enormous pillars to create steam which would generate electricity.

The facility was built by Bright Source Energy Inc, and operated by NRG Energy Inc. NRG owns the facility along with Bright Source, Google and other investors. Last time I wrote about Ivanpah in November, they were trying to get a federal grant to pay off their $1.6 billion federal loan.

The $2.2 billion project is supposed to be generating more than a million megawatt hours of electricity, but 15 months after starting up, the plant is producing just 40% of that, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Why, with new technology, there is a lot more that can go wrong. There’s a lot more on-the-job-learning. The power plant needs a lot more steam to run smoothly and efficiently. They thought they could ramp up the plant before sunrise with fossil fuels to get it humming, but it needs four times as much fossil fuel help to get going.

And despite being in one of the hottest places in the U.S. — not enough sun. Weather predictions underestimated the amount of cloud cover. Then there were millions in cost overruns because of wildlife protections for the ‘endangered’ Desert Tortoise. The birds are not so lucky. Government biologists estimate that  3,500 birds died at Ivanpah in the course of a year. The songbirds go up in a puff of smoke as they chase the bugs that are drawn to the bright light. Raptors chase the songbirds, and die instantly. I wonder if the big corpses break the mirrors when they fall?

New solar farms generate electricity at about 5 cents a kilowatt-hour. Ivanpah is running between 12 and 25 cents a kilowatt-hour. Plans for solar-thermal plants elsewhere are being canceled. American Solar farms generate nearly 16 million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. That amounts to less than 1% of U.S. electricity demand. Utilities are likely to opt for cheaper solar farms that use panels. The Sierra Club continues its disgraceful “War on Coal.” And the EPA continues its efforts to shut down America’s coal-fired power plants that produce nearly 40 percent of America’s electricity, under the illusion that removing whatever carbon dioxide they produce will have a measurable effect on climate change. It won’t. And we will pay a high price for that loss of energy.

%d bloggers like this: