NEW YORK – Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission spared from shutdown yet another solar power plant that would have cost U.S. taxpayers the loss of $1.6 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees.
California Public Utilities Commission, in a unanimous vote taken without discussion, conceded to a request by PG&E Corporation to grant Ivanpah a concession of one more year to see if the renewable energy plant –whose first full year of operation was in 2014 –might yet deliver the amount of electricity contractually promised in 2009.
“When it first came online late in 2013, the massive Ivanpah concentrated power plant in the California desert looked like the possible future of renewable energy,” noted senior editor Richard Martin, writing in the MIT Technology Review on March 24. “Now its troubles underline the challenges facing concentrated solar power, which uses mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to make steam and produce energy.”
Amid campaigns by the Obama administration, the United Nations and Pope Francis to switch from carbon fuels to renewable energies like solar and wind power, the failure of Ivanpah to deliver on promises casts additional doubt on the current market viability of green energy.
Just ‘too expensive’
With its failure to meet contractual energy-output requirements, Ivanpah joins a list of solar energy failures that include the bankruptcy restructuring Spanish-based Abengoa, which received $2.7 billion in U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantees to develop several concentrated solar plants in the United States, the MIT Review noted.
In today’s low-cost natural gas environment, plants like Ivanpah might simply be “too expensive,” the publication said.
Unlike a photovoltaic solar power plant in which the solar panels produce electricity, in a solar thermal power plant like Ivanpah, the sunlight hitting the solar mirrors, known as heliostats, produces heat that is transferred to the boilers in the towers, heating the water in turn and producing steam that moves turbines. In the case of Ivanpah, the turbines enough electricity to power 140,000 homes, estimated at about 392 megawats.
“Though Ivanpah is an engineering marvel, experts doubt more plants like it will be built in California,” Reuters reported in February 2014. “Other solar technologies are now far cheaper than solar thermal, federal guarantees for renewable energy projects have dried up, and natural gas-fired plants are much cheaper to build.
“From a distance, the mirrors – known as heliostats – look like a pristine lake rising from the desert,” Reuters continued. “Ivanpah, about four times larger than New York City’s Central Park, can even be seen from the International Space Station.”
Reuters described the Ivanpah solar thermal power plant as a massive complex constructed by Bechtel and operated by NRG Energy, one of the project’s equity investors, sprawling across some 3,500 acres in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border.
Ivanpah sits on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, with more than 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors, each measuring seven feet high and 10 feet wide, designed to reflect sunlight onto three boilers housed in the top of three towers, each of which is 150 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
Continued failure to meet contractual obligations
According to a contract PG&E negotiated with Ivanpah in 2009, PG&E purchased the solar thermal energy to comply with a state law that requires utilities to produce 33 percent of their power from solar, wind or other renewables by 2020, with state lawmakers last year increasing the mandate to 50 percent renewables by 2030.
This was despite the fact that production of electricity by solar thermal energy is expensive, with Ivanpah paying two to three times as much per megawatt-hour as other solar power producers and four to five times as much per megawatt-hour as natural gas-powered plants, according to David Kreutzer, the senior research fellow in energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis.
“Power from the two Ivanpah units that serve PG&E last year fetched about $200 a megawatt-hour on average during summer months, and about $135 a megawatt-hour on average the rest of the year, according to sales data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” the Wall Street Journal reported on March 16.
“That compares to an average price of $57 a megawatt-hour for solar power sold under contracts signed in 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance,” the Wall Street Journal article continued. “Power from natural-gas plants went for $35 a megawatt-hour on average in California’s wholesale market last year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data compiled by the Energy Department.”
Ivanpah has never lived up to PG&E expectations, generating only 45 percent of the electricity the state commission expected under the contracts in 2014 and 68 percent in 2015, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal data and state documents.
Burns natural gas and kills wild birds
Despite the publicity over solar thermal energy as a renewable energy, the Wall Street Journal reported Ivanpah continued to use natural gas to heat boilers to make steam used to warm up its power turbines, emitting some carbon dioxide in the process.
In November 2015, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported Ivanpah burned enough natural gas in 2014, its first year of operation, to emit 46,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, enough to require Ivanpah to participate in California’s Cap and Trade program to reduce emissions.
The Wall Street Journal further reported that the Ivanpah plant was estimated to have killed more than 2,000 wild birds between March and August 2015.
“Roughly half of the dead birds the biologists found had feathers that were singed or burned, most likely from flying through an area of intense heat between the mirrors and the power towers, according to the reports,” the Wall Street Journal report noted.
The birds evidently see the mirrors as water, unaware that as they descend, the 800 degree Fahrenheit solar beams tend to roast them as they fly into what turns out to be “an avian death trap.”
“To be sure, birds also fall prey to other renewable-energy projects,” the newspaper commented. “Wind turbines kill between 140,000 and 328,000 birds in the U.S. every year, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.”
The original concept of the Ivanpah plant was sold on expectations the complex would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 400,000 tons a year.
“One big miscalculation was that the power plant requires far more steam to run smoothly and efficiently than originally thought, according to a document filed with the California Energy Commission,” the Wall Street Journal reported in June 2015.
“Instead of ramping up the plant each day before sunrise by burning one hour’s worth of natural gas to generate steam, Ivanpah needs more than four times that much help from fossil fuels to get the plant humming every morning,” the report continued. “Another unexpected problem: not enough sun. Weather predictions for the area underestimated the amount of cloud cover that has blanketed Ivanpah since it went into service in 2013.”
Democrat crony capitalism
Ivanpah, designed by BrightSource Energy, a venture capital-created renewable energy giant, is operated by renewable energy giant NRG, Goldman Sachs and Google.
In September 2012, while Ivanpah was under construction, former President Bill Clinton visited the construction site on his way to the National Clean Energy Summit, where he praised the Ivanpah construction workers, calling them “the people who are going to make the difference in moving the clean energy industry forward.”
Fox News reported that in February 2014, Ernest Moniz, the U.S. secretary of energy, opened Ivanpah “with great fanfare,” “justifying the taxpayers’ investment at the time” by saying: “We want to be technology leaders. It’s good for our economy and it’s also good for helping stimulate the global transition to low carbon.”
The Green Corruption blog, in a series of articles devoted to tracing the political corruption evident in the Ivanpah deal, noted the following in a report published July 6, 2012:
On April 11, 2011, the DOE announced the finalization of $1.6 billion in loan guarantees for BrightSource’s Ivanpah project. The apparent “payoffs” to Democrats are myriad—the company having donated at least $21,600 to Democrats since 2008 (and zero dollars to Republicans). According to a Washington Free Beacon report, Senator Harry “Reid received almost $4,000 from BrightSource executives in the 2010 cycle, including $2,400 from CEO John Woolard, who hosted a fundraiser for the majority leader. Woolard is also a Barack Obama donor and has visited the White House 10 times since Obama took office.”
The Green Corruption report continued as follows:
Additionally, Sanjay Wagle (a significant 2008 Obama campaign supporter and contributor), a principal at Vantage Point Partners (the major stakeholder in BrightSource) was an advisor at the DOE at the time the loan was approved. And, John Bryson, BrightSource Chairman, became Obama’s Secretary of Commerce (although he resigned in June following a series of mysterious auto accidents) and has ties to an organization that helped craft the stimulus package.
Yet, with renewal energy remaining politically correct, the MIT Review noted that the impetus to build concentrated solar energy plants, while dying in the U.S., is continuing in China, where the price of natural gas is higher.
Richard Martin reported China, “which is plowing billions of yuan into clean energy schemes in order to reduce its dependency on coal plans to build at least a gigawatt of concentrated solar capacity in the coming years, and could expand that to 10 gigawatts.”
Yet, in doing so, China has to concede the newly built concentrated solar energy plants will need to add energy storage capacity, in the form of molten salt “that can enable plants to continue producing electricity for as much as 10 hours when the sun’s not shining.”