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An Energy Eclipse
Solar Struggles Around the World

Solar power is running into major problems on both sides of the Atlantic. This week we learned that the Ivanpah solar thermal plant, located in California’s Mojave desert, barely survived being shut down by regulators for not producing enough power as required by contracts with the local utility. The WSJ reports:

The California Public Utilities Commission approved without discussion forbearance agreements that would give the owners of the plant, BrightSource Energy Inc., NRG Energy Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit, up to a year to work out its problems.

The unconventional solar-thermal project uses more than 170,000 mirrors mounted to the ground to reflect sunlight to 450-foot-high towers topped by boilers that heat up to create steam, which in turn is used to generate electricity.

But since opening in 2014, it has angered some environmentalists by killing thousands of birds, many of which are burned to death—and has so far failed to produce the expected power.

This is the same facility that’s been frying birds right out of the sky, reminding greens in the process that all energy sources entail some sort of risk. But Ivanpah isn’t the only struggling solar story this week: the Spanish solar firm Abengoa stands on the brink of bankruptcy. The NYT reports:

Saddled with debt from its expansion, the company is scrambling to avoid what would be the largest bankruptcy in Spanish corporate history. Creditors and shareholders are taking the company to court as losses mount and crucial financial support disappears. […]

[Abengoa’s] signature American projects still have around $2 billion in outstanding loans guaranteed by the United States government, and the company benefited heavily from subsidies in Spain. But its solar thermal projects have been slow to turn a profit and generate little income in the interim, amplifying its cash squeeze.

Lavish subsidies are naturally going to attract investors interested in making a buck in an industry being propped up by the government, but Abengoa’s shaky standing reminds us that rapid state-backed growth in wind and solar doesn’t mean these industries are healthy.

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  • CaliforniaStark

    People who drive the 1-5 freeway through Primm Valley often comment on the massive size of the Ivanpah solar thermal plant. In response I will ask them what they thought of the natural gas plant? The response is always: “what natural gas plant.” South of the I-5 freeway just over the Nevada border is the Higgins natural gas plant, which opened in 2004. It is barely noticeable; but produces more power (530 MW) than Ivanpah, and was built at a fraction of the cost. It would cost in the 400 million range now, compared with 2.2 billion for Ivanpah. It has tiny environmental footprint compared to Ivanpah — and doesn’t blast birds out of the sky.

    Ivanpah is actually a hybrid solar thermal/natural gas plant. Its high level of carbon emissions require it to purchase carbon credits in California as an offset. If there is an example of the folly and utter stupidity of Obama’s energy policies, it is Ivanpah.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I am a big fan of the Fallout series of video games (yes, I am ashamed….), and everytime I hear Ivanapah and Primm mentioned, I think of those locations in the game. Apparently the fiction exceeds the fact!

  • Blackbeard

    Ivanpah will not be allowed to fail. The Feds will bail it out and the NY Times will cite Ivanpah as a great success. Liberals will believe this.

    Ever since I realized that facts don’t matter in politics I see things much more clearly.

  • Andrew Allison

    Solar power, an idea who’s time has not yet come.

    • f1b0nacc1

      And never will..

      • Andrew Allison

        I’m not so sure. The fracking industry, for example, has something to tell us here. When compelled by economic reality, ingenuity will find a way. The way forward is to do away with the subsidies which encourage the status quo ante.

        • f1b0nacc1

          You may be right, but I suspect that this is somewhat different. Solar is incredibly inefficient in terms of its very low space/output ratio, its dependence on environmental conditions, and the problems associated with storage and distribution. None of those are likely to be resolvable with any kind of technological breakthrough (FatMan has done a superb take-down of the storage issues, I refer you to him on that), and in the meantime numerous other, entirely practical, alternatives exist.

          Absent subsidies, and other political interference, solar is revealed for what it is…a fantasy for luddites who want to pretend that they don’t need those nasty, nasty machines….

          • CaliforniaStark

            An energy source that only works about eight hours each day, and not even in that limited time period if it is overcast or there is a cloud cover, will never reliably provide power 24/7. Believe solar power has a place as a supplemental power source on residential, commercial and other buildings, but its benefit is mainly as a means to conserve power and provide an economic benefit, by lowering energy costs, to its users (and the public under a sensible net metering regiment), rather than as a dependable baseline power source.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Precisely so. Solar is a charming boutique product that can never be economically viable as anything else.

          • Andrew Allison

            I have a more cynical view: the subsidies flow to the companies producing and installing the systems. It’s a lucrative industry built at taxpayer expense and maintained by intense lobbying.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Actually I tend to agree with your view (we are both SUCH cynics….), the luddites are simply to tools of the cronies who get the subsidies. I believe the phrase ‘useful idiots’ is especially apt here.

          • Andrew Allison


          • Mastro63

            In New Jersey- across from Philadelphia – you see solar panels on telephone poles. They must have used a cherry picker to install them. What that costs? Maybe $500 for a panel that can barely power a light bulb. They could have installed thousands for pennies if they used rooftops,etc.

            It was all a subsidy to union workers- at tax payers expense.

    • Jim__L

      Solar power works nicely in space — you’d be surprised how much performance we can squeeze out of what little energy those panels create. The massive panels you’d find on a school-bus-sized satellite give you about as much power as an outboard motor.

      If you’re anywhere with a ready supply of oxygen — petroleum works ever so much better.

      • Andrew Allison

        I suspect that we are preaching to the choir [grin] But you’ve given me an idea: let’s restrict subsidies to technologies which offer the same power density as fossil fuel (any fossil fuel). Go nuclear!

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