Taxpayers are paying for a concentrated solar project — Ivanpah– that doesn’t work

Ivanpah in the news:

Dvorsky, G. May 21, 2016. The World’s Largest Solar Plant Just Torched Itself. Gizmodo (Australia). Misaligned mirrors are being blamed for a fire that broke out yesterday at the world’s largest solar power plant, leaving the high-tech facility crippled for the time being.

David Kreutzer. March 29, 2016. Taxpayers Are Footing Bill for Solar Project That Doesn’t Work.

The latest example is the $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar thermal plant in California. (Note: Solar thermal, also known as Concentrated Solar Power plants, do not use solar panels to directly convert sunshine to electricity; they use sunshine to boil water that then drives conventional turbines to create electricity.)  Here’s the story so far. Ivanpah:

  • is owned by Google, NRG Energy, and Brightsource, who have a market cap in excess of $500 billion.
  • received $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy.
  • is paid four to five times as much per megawatt-hour as natural gas-powered plants.
  • is paid two to three times as much per megawatt-hour as other solar power producers.
  • has burned thousands of birds to death.
  • has delayed loan repayments.
  • is seeking over $500 million in grants to help pay off the guaranteed loans.
  • burns natural gas for 4.5 hours each morning to get its mojo going.

Brightsource, which is privately held, is owned by a virtual who’s who of those who don’t need subsidies from taxpayers and ratepayers.

In spite of all this, Ivanpah has fallen woefully short of its production targets. The managers’ explanation for why production came up 32% below expected output is the weather. In addition to raising questions about planning for uncertainty, it is not all that clear how a 9% drop in sunshine causes a 32% drop in production.

More bizarrely, the natural gas used to get the plant all warmed up and ready each day would be enough to generate over one quarter of the power actually produced from the solar energy. 

The problem for Ivanpah’s customers (California power utilities) is that they planned on all those solar watt-hours to meet California’s renewable power mandates, which require that renewables produce a large and rising fraction of California’s electricity. That is why they pay so much more for Ivanpah’s output than for conventionally powered electricity.

Breaching their contracts with these California utilities threatened to shut down Ivanpah.  But this would have been bothersome for Ivanpah’s investors and the Department of Energy’s ridiculous Section 1703 Loan Program, so the California Public Utilities Commission saved the day (for the fat-cat owners, of course, not for actual the electricity consumers) by granting the company an extension to meet the production targets.  The best part of the ruling is the section on the cost—it’s pretty succinct.  Here it is in its entirety:





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