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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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  • LarryD

    I wonder how much water they use annually, washing desert dust off of all those mirrors.

    If any non “renewable” power plant killed 28,000 birds a year, the greens would be screaming for its closure instantly.

    • dariansdad

      Interesting how there’s no source sited for that number though… The previous number, 6,000 annually, was sited by the Audubon Society last year and is less than half the number of birds killed by any 500-foot glass and steel tower in any American city.

  • Disappeared4x

    [Satire warning] Cousin Fiona was fried? No one messes with the MacGillivray clan…call up Gwaihir, and a battalion of vampire bats…

    A MacGillivray’s warbler like this was one of at least 21 birds killed at the Ivanpah solar facility in early September | Photo: Sarah
    Beckwith/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License

    “…Among the birds recorded as killed on the site in early September were a western tanager; a blue-gray gnatcatcher; a white-throated
    swift; chipping and Brewer’s sparrows, a Cassin’s vireo; a house finch; two mourning doves; a brown-headed cowbird; an American coot; MacGillivray’s, Wilson’s, and black-throated gray warblers; and six birds that were too badly damaged to identify positively but which probably included two sparrows, a warbler, a sandpiper, and a hummingbird. …”

  • CaliforniaStark

    What the Bloomberg article failed to mention was that a substantial reason more power is being generated by Ivanpah is the increased use of natural gas. In effect, Ivanpah is now a hydrid natural gas/solar plant. Ivanpah uses so much natural gas that it has to purchase carbon credits from the state of California. The amount used is much more than required to “start the turbines” every morning.

    It would have been far cheaper to have just built a natural gas plant at the Ivanpah site. Across the Primm Valley in Nevada from the Ivanpah site is the Walter M.Higgins Generating Station, a combined cycle natural gas plant. It opened in 2004, costs about 1/4 of Ivanpah, and produces about 530 MWs of power.

    • Proverbs1618

      wish I could up vote this a hundred times.

    • dariansdad

      Well, as long as your post isn’t clouded by politics…

  • champ

    Just like the windmill farms here in California that kill tens of thousands of birds, including eagles, hawks, and owls, every year

  • Boritz
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