Adjust the Mirror
Beleaguered California Solar Plant Finally Produces Enough Power

California’s Ivanpah solar thermal power plant is composed of a massive number of mirrors all pointing at a central columns topped by boilers, far out in the Mojave desert, but the three-year old facility has struggled with one major problem in its short lifespan: it doesn’t produce enough power. At least, it hasn’t produced as much as it was obligated to under its contract with a utility…until recently. Bloomberg reports:

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in Southern California initially failed to meet contractual obligations, and a yearlong forbearance deal with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. expired Wednesday. After fine-tuning the complex facility that uses 170,000 mirrors, output is up and it’s no longer at risk of defaulting on the deal, according to David Knox, a spokesman for operator and co-owner NRG Energy Inc. […]

It took NRG longer than anticipated…to bring the water to just-the-right temperature each morning and position all those mirrors to optimize the power of the sun. “It took a lot of choreography to get everything just right,’’ Knox said.

Three years is a long time to spend tinkering, but according to one of the facility’s spokespeople, Ivanpah’s power output has increased dramatically since its inception. The fact that the plant was nearly shut down by regulators for breaching its contract wasn’t just bad optics for Ivanpah’s operators or the state of California, it was a blemish on the reputation of the fledgling solar thermal industry. It’s heartening news, then, that the facility has managed (apparently) to finally right the ship.

Energy sources need to be tailored to their environments, and it stands to reason that deserts are, generally speaking, good places to site solar thermal plants. That doesn’t mean that these facilities are exempt from operational difficulties, as Ivanpah has shown. It also doesn’t preclude these kinds of facilities from environmental concerns, as Ivanpah has also shown by the fact that facility is attracting and then igniting (mid-air!) up to 28,000 birds every year. Renewables have their own attendant green issues, just as their hydrocarbon-powered alternatives do.

And speaking of fossil fuels, let’s not brush past the fact that this facility relies on natural gas to start the turbines every morning that the solar-heated steam runs during the rest of the day. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: shale gas and renewables are natural complements to one another. The now functioning Ivanpah plant is a great example of that.

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