Newish Obama Era Solar Plant Faces Being Shut Down By California

People who have been paying attention to the green energy debacle sweeping the nation know the name Ivanpah.  It is that HUGE solar plant in the Mojave Desert that was supposed to generate SO MUCH ENERGY, the rest of us were going to wonder why we didn’t build it sooner.

As chronicled since then, what the sea of mirrors really is is a flash fryer of birds, an unbelievable glare for pilots flying over the darn thing, and a financial windfall of taxpayer dollars for its backers.  Now, after two years of operating we also know that the darn thing is amazingly inefficient.

Ivanpah, which got a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Obama administration, only produced a fraction of the power state regulators expected it would. The plant only generated 45 percent of expected power in 2014 and only 68 percent in 2015, according to government data.

And it does all this at a cost of $200 per megawatt hour — nearly six times the cost of electricity from natural gas-fired power plants. Interestingly enough, Ivanpah uses natural gas to supplement its solar production.

This led to an ultimatum from the California Department of Energy: live up to the promises of the plant or face being shut down in July.

The solar plant is owned by a consortium of BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy, and Google.  It is the largest of its sort in the world and is supposedly capable of producing 392 megawatts of electricity or enough to power about 100,000 homes.  Its heliostats – the bright mirrors that reflect sunlight to water boilers at the top of 450 foot towers that generate steam to turn the turbines that generate the electricity – number 170,000.  (So, it’s not a real solar electricity plant, but one that uses directed sunlight to replace fire for heating water.)  In 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy financed the big boondoggle with $1.6 BILLION of taxpayer dollars.  At the time, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz hailed the plant as a great achievement.

“This project speaks for itself,” Moniz said when the project went online in early 2014. “Just look at the 170,000 shining heliostat mirrors and the three towers that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty.”

Yeah, but at only 450 feet, both the Washington Monument AND the Arch in St. Louis dwarf the towers.

And from the beginning, according to the people at NRG Energy, the darn thing produced only about a quarter of its capacity in the months after production began.  The losses were so great, that the company went to the federal government for a $539 million loan to pay back the Department of Energy.  This just adds to the evidence that investors know the only way for “green” energy to be worthwhile is to have government subsidies.  Remember Warren Buffett said that green energy doesn’t make sense without them.

And then there was the environmental stuff:

That was only the beginning of the company’s problems. Environmentalists quickly attacked the project for killing thousands of birds since it opened. Many birds were incinerated by the intense heat being reflected off Ivanpah’s heliostats.

The Associated Press cited statistics presented by environmentalists in 2014 that “about a thousand… to 28,000” birds are incinerated by Ivanpah’s heliostats every year.

“Forensic Lab staff observed a falcon or falcon-like bird with a plume of smoke arising from the tail as it passed through the flux field,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report from 2014.

“Immediately after encountering the flux, the bird exhibited a controlled loss of stability and altitude but was able to cross the perimeter fence before landing,” FWS reported.

Pilots also reported amazing glare coming from the sea of mirrors, but were able to fly through without too much impact to the flights.  They knew it was coming and took action.

Whether or not this spells the beginning of the end of Ivanpah remains to be seen.  There was a lot of money sunk into the project and a lot of hope that this kind of energy would spell the sort of change the liberals out there really want to happen.  Once again we are seeing that wishful thinking doesn’t change the basic laws of physics or economics.

About the Author

Cultural Limits
A resident of Flyover Country, Cultural Limits is a rare creature in American Conservatism - committed to not just small government, Christianity and traditional social roles, but non-profits and high arts and culture. Watching politics, observing human behavior and writing are all long-time interests. In her other life, CL writes romance novels under her nom de plume, Patricia Holden (@PatriciaHoldenAuthor on Facebook), and crochets like a mad woman (designs can be found on Facebook @BohemianFlairCrochet and on Pinterest on the Bohemian Flair Crochet board). In religion, CL is Catholic; in work, the jill of all trades when it comes to fundraising software manipulation and event planning; in play, a classically trained soprano and proud citizen of Cardinal Nation, although, during hockey season, Bleeds Blue. She lives in the Mid-Mississippi River Valley with family and two cute and charming tyrants...make that toy dogs.