The Ivanpah solar power plant is in the press again, and again for reasons contrary to the hopes of renewable energy advocates.

According to reporting in the Wall Street Journal two days ago, due to the plant delivering a large shortfall on contractual supply agreements, Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. said the solar plant may be forced to shut down unless granted an extension from regulators. The reporting is a little sketchy however this eventuality was flagged late last year. In a decision granted today, the plant has received an extension until July 31 2016.

This is the latest in the difficulties experienced by the plants. I have not objected to the Ivanpah development per se. However I have used it as a case study to highlight the massive land requirements of such developments compared to nuclear technology, the double-standard relating to the threat to endangered species and the reality that sub-average conditions are the real arbiter as to the reliability of climate-dependent electricity generation (the dismal performance of the first year was in part caused by summer conditions being well-below expected insolation for the location). Others have observed the much greater than expected consumption of gas, credible (but preliminary) concerns regarding the extent of avian impact and even the difficulty for pilots. All of those issues mean one thing for a facility that can reliably deliver high volumes of competitively priced, zero-carbon electricity, and another thing for a facility that can’t.

Today, I say the regulator is right to give the plant more time, for two important reasons.

This is newly commissioned technology; newly commissioned technology needs to be given a chance to work. When Australia’s OPAL research reactor was commissioned in 2007 it had teething problems and, without drawing breath, some called it a white elephant. Today it is recognised as nationally, regionally and globally important infrastructure and it is expanding production of vital nuclear medicine and high-end doped silicon. Across the board, we can’t run away from new stuff at the first sign of trouble. Anyone involved in bringing new nuclear technology to the market would do well to remember this.

Secondly, we can’t leave the door open for excuse-making. Ivanpah is a globally premium site for solar thermal technology. If prematurely closed, renewable-only advocates will forever lean on the crutch that it wasn’t given a chance, and who can then prove them wrong? Ivanpah should be given the leash to run right up to the point where the owners/operators say to the relevant regulators “this is as good as it gets”. Today, this class of technology features heavily in modelling for potential 100 % renewable futures in sunny nations like Australia, Portugal and the United States. Giving the Ivanpah plant every possible chance to succeed is important in considering the validity of those proposed energy mixes. It lets the rest of the world to know exactly what that means and decide, in an informed way, whether this class of technology has a serious role to play in our energy future.

I am increasingly of the opinion that it does not. If you tried to market a nuclear plant on the basis of Ivanpah performance (“it takes up loads of space in wilderness, we are not sure how long it lasts, output varies daily, seasonally and annually, it hurts birds in a fairly grizzly way and best of all the electricity is incredibly expensive”) you would be justifiably laughed act then summarily ignored. But the fact is I may well turn out to be wrong. We all benefit from the data and operating experience to put the value or otherwise of this technology beyond supposition.

So let it run. Let it succeed or fail in the clear light of day. The location is certainly optimal for that.

36 comments

  1. With regards to the bird deaths, I recall similar stories about wind turbines but have not heard anything about them lately.

    Apparently they also have a fix for the bird deaths.

    1. What a very interesting question.

      If I have understood you correctly I think the answer is “no”. This was intended to be a (albeit heavily subsidised) commercial generating facility, not a research facility at the nascent stage of the technology as per EBR-1.

      Shippingport a better comparison perhaps?

      It’s certainly worth asking what the future may hold. Given we can measure the solar energy per square meter and we cannot alter the variability, I think one can make reasonable prognostications as to how good this technology can really get.

      1. The technology can only compete if the price decreases of PV-solar and storage (battery and P2G) turn around into price increases.

        As there is no vision about how to create significant (factor 4 or so) lower costs, this technology is a lost case. Especially since the operating costs are much higher than those of PV-solar with storage.
        It will only flourish in protected environments without competition or a lot of subsidies (such as Spain).

  2. Ben:

    I agree with you. As a former steam plant engineer, I can testify to the difficulties associated with getting them up and running reliably. Nuclear advocates will do well to remember the rather dismal fleet wide capacity factors in the early years after the Great Bandwagon Market.

    That said, I’ve always had a questioning attitude about solar thermal power plants because of my experiences with steam. It is a very solid, reliable technology when it is in use and all of the components are maintained at or near their normal operating temperatures.

    Almost invariably, however, gaskets and valve packing will develop some leaks during periods when the piping is cycled from operating temperatures to shut down temperatures and back again. It is kind of the nature of the beast to to the way that the components flex, swell and shrink.

    With solar thermal, unless there is a continued heat supply during the night, there is an inevitable daily temperature and pressure cycle. As the plant ages, the issues get a little worse. (The steam plant I came to know and love was more than 25 years old and had completed about 80 deployments. It was a lot of work to keep it running reliably.)

    Like you, I am very interested in finding how what the actual limitations are for solar thermal. How good can it get and is that best performance worth the effort. It’d be great to know for sure.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

    1. Hi Rod,

      Funnily enough you were among the people in whose reaction to this post I was most interested to hear. You didn’t waste time in letting me know, so thanks.

      I’m pleased the argument I presented here settled well with you.

  3. Remember the sodium fire at the solar thermal plant under construction at Jemalong NSW last year.
    http://www.forbesadvocate.com.au/story/3148157/fire-at-jemalong/
    The sodium was to be heated at the focal point of several towers each with a mirror field, then used to heat an oil or salt reservoir for night time steam generation. The project has gone quiet; maybe it’s the backers who have gone cold.

    A weird coincidence is the use of a winter gas boost at Pt Augusta but not the proposed solar thermal plant. A founder of nearby Sundrop Farms had a falling out over the use of gas heating for greenhouses used to grow tomatoes
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/24/growing-food-in-the-desert-crisis
    The project is a darling of the 100% renewables crowd who seem to have a blind spot about the gas, the apparent indefinite need for subsidies and the embodied fossil energy of all that glass and metal. Funny how uranium rich SA got so many people in the Lovins mould.

  4. Well said Ben, and yes, we should: ” let it run. Let it succeed or fail in the clear light of day.”

    Unfortunately, the California Energy Commission and utility companies like PG&E are all too willing to run towards natural gas and renewables, and away from nuclear power…

    Until we complete the work identified in Attachment A of these docketed comments, and come to agreement about our best path forward, we will continue to fail in our collective efforts to meet all identified targets in the Paris Climate Agreement, EPA Clean Power Plan and California Assemble Bill 32: http://docketpublic.energy.ca.gov/PublicDocuments/15-IEPR-11/TN205398_20150719T170914_Kirk_Gothier_Comments_Kirk_Gothier_Comments_on_Climate_Adaptati.pdf.

    We either start making decisions based on scientific consensus, or continue to rely on some other metric, which will insure other species evolve to replace humans: http://www.pewinternet.org/interactives/public-scientists-opinion-gap/.

    As President Theodore Roosevelt advised: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

  5. Agree. But google experienced another serious problem with solar. A passing cloud could cut input power dramatically causing rapid power input shifts up and down. The resulting thermal cycling wears on the machine cutting its lifetime down substantially. Currently the plant burns natural gas equivalent to 25% of its total electrical output – mostly to provide heat to ease the thermal transitions at night and to ride through cloud events. The issue is that the site isn’t meeting state definitions for carbon free electricity which is the reason the utilities buy from it.
    I’m guessing they will do what they can to improve it but it won’t meet the current definition – so the solution will be to modify the definition so the plant meets the modified definition and declare victory.

  6. I can’t see how airline pilot problems will be reduced unless they are now re-routing flights. WRT bird deaths, I don’t expect that their genetics has caught up with this facility … unless Darwin has already killed them all off.

    Actually those sort of problems could be avoided if they had chosen to use the approach used in Spain and at the Solana Generating Station in Arizona for example. These CSP facilities use parabolic trays to absorb solar energy rather than reflecting it to a central tower. The parabolic trays still take up a lot of real estate of course. IMO the central tower approach used at Ivanpah should be relegated to the “bad idea” technology pile.

  7. I am in favor of keeping it running since the data gathering exercise will bear long-term benefits for future generations that may again be seduced by the lure of “free energy” from the sun. Also as has been pointed out, by keeping it running there is a higher potential the loans will be paid down or paid off before the plant is mothballed or shut down due to default.

    However, transparency is needed.

    What is not forthcoming from any of the parties involved including the State of California is hard data. True cost per $MW-hr, how well is the plant actually running (i.e., solar generation vs natural gas generation), how much natural gas is being used in conjunction with the facility, how many birds and other wildlife are actually dying as well as many other data points that are necessary to determine Ivanpah’s long-term viability .

    The facility was primarily funded by the US taxpayer making it equivalent to a taxpayer funded R&D lab. The US taxpayer has inherited significant risk if a default occurs while any profits go back to the developers (wait, I thought that only happened with nuclear power). The least the current owners can do is ensure full transparency of the operational data to see if this facility is technological viable.

    1. I strongly agree.

      Having had a dig into it a couple of times, it’s confusing and information has been lacking.

      Given the public $ involved, I agree with data should be public.

      1. Thanks Ben for this post and thanks all for the excellent discussion. I most especially agree with 1) gathering as much data as possible and 2) making it all very public and in convenient forms, say CSV records that can easily be imported into spreadsheets for analysis. Graph it on a monitoring web page as well. The project should be kept running for ten years at least, and I think that other interested governments should be solicited for funding and support to keep it running. If ‘sustainable’ is to have any meaning at all, it requires creating and monitoring long-term trials and ‘best effort – best case’ trials.

        I think it would be useful to engage groups and governments that favour solar power generation and get them to commit to regular review of the data and to use it to formulate their policies and guide their activities. (Possibly wishful thinking on my part, but it’s worth a try…) It would be interesting to see who might commit to following actual data instead of just building a pretty model and waving their hands to say the problems are solved.

  8. Light pollution lead to the nixing of the solar thermal tower in Cloncurry Qld. it was to be a graphite block on stilts zapped by heliostat mirrors. Evidently aviation authorities objected.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloncurry_Solar_Farm

    It seems that fossil methane can be honorary renewable if your intentions are good. Gas vented from coal mines is used to run small power stations at Munmorah Qld and three sites near Appin NSW, They get renewable energy certificates for gawds sake. That’s a subsidy to increase emissions. George Orwell warned us we would be talking doublespeak by now.

    On further googling Sundrop Farms at Pt Augusta I see they are constructing a 110m tall solar tower next to their parabolic trough desal. A beacon of hope for all of us. Recall Alinta the owner of the soon-to-be-closed Northern coal fired station next door said solar thermal was hopelessly uneconomic. While nuclear supporters need Royal Commissions to get a hearing public money just falls in the lap of solar thermal supporters. At some point the funding agencies must be asked to justify themselves.

    1. Hi John,
      I love the idea of Sundrop farms growing veggies from seawater + desert. If running on electricity from nuclear, do you think their crops would still be economically viable?

  9. Various quotes from this article and articles directly linked from it include:
    (1) “60 percent more natural gas in auxiliary boilers than was allowed under the plant’s certification”,
    (2) “auxiliary boilers typically need to operate an average of approximately 4.5 hours a day during startup (an increase from 1 hour daily average originally expected).”
    (3) “the facilities’ total generation for solar will be 40 to 50 times the generation associated with natural gas.”
    These cannot all be true – indeed, they are son diverse as to indicate that the plant is operating far short of expectations.

    That said, I agree with Ben. It must be given every chance to achieve its goals and, if these are not achievable, then at least to demonstrate how good it can be and what carbon footprint that involves. The plant is huge at 350+ MW nameplate. In energy terms, it is about one sixth the capacity of a generator in an Australian coal fired power plant. In cash terms, it is too large an experiment to abandon without completing the experiment.

  10. Ikemeister (above) recommends avoiding the power tower concept in favour of trough reflectors.

    One unpleasant fact of life is that higher steam temperatures make higher generating efficiency possible. Higher steam temperatures are the Holy Grail of boiler designers. A quick explanation is that the minimum waste heat hypothetically achievable is the latent heat of condensation of every kg of steam that passes through the system. The only heat that is able to be harvested as mechanincal and ultimately electrical energy is the heat released as steam cools from its maximum temperature to ambient. Thus, the maximum efficiency of the steam cycle is approximated by the formula
    n = H2 / (H1 + H2) where H1 is latent heat of condensation and H2 is the energy released by cooling steam to ambient.

    Obviously, the higher the steam temp, the higher the efficiency.

    Besides which, fresnell type collectors also need thermal support every morning to get them going, otherwise they won’t be warmed through until well after sunrise.

    What is needed is not corporate transparency regarding operating experience, but continuous independent, quality-assured on-the-ground observation. Does anybody know whether this happens with Ivanpah?

    1. Good point. The lower efficiencies and startup complications every day, to say nothing of the ongoing maintenance and trough washing labour, certainly weakens the trough reflector approach. However none of this rescues the central tower concept because of the less than ideal environmental and safety concerns. If a nuke were to have the same level of safety risk and direct environmental impact, there’s just no way it would be allowed to continue operating.

  11. @ John Newlands:
    Munmorah Power Station is south of Newcastle, NSW, not Qld. Currently being demolished, it had 4x330MW coal fired units.

    Colongra is the correct name for the 667MW 4-unit open cycle power station owned by Snowy Hydro and located within the grounds of the former Munmorah. It has a reputation as a $700M white elephant, Word is that it rarely sees service, so any greenhouse gas emissions are probably as minimal as its relevance to the Australian NEM. While referred to as peaking plant it is probably better considered to be standby plant – something which Tasmanians currently wish that they had when the Bass Straight Interconnector failed early this year.

      1. Excerpt from Wiki article on Qld energy At Moronbah North coal mine a 45 MW power station generates base load power and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. They could re-inject the scavenged methane into a gas tight formation and with electric shovels have no minesite GHGs at all.

        The Tasmanian situation is bizarre. They originally thought Basslink was snagged by a fishing trawler now they think it was fritzed by sending down more than 500 MW from the Loy Yang inverter rectifier station. From one media article it could be inferred the cost of temporary diesel is about $257 per Mwh, Greens say more wind farms needed. The open cycle gas plant has to come back from repairs in Dubai and the laid off employees rehired. Bass Strait piped gas has been flogged for 40 years maybe if the hydro dams don’t refill we’ll end up needing LNG like Japan.

  12. At at full design output Ivanpah is meant to avoid 400,000 tonnes of CO2 pa. But the extra gas required is expected to produce [95,000 tonnes](http://docketpublic.energy.ca.gov/PublicDocuments/07-AFC-05C/TN202625_20140627T133235_Ivanpah_Solar_Electric_Generating_System__Staff_Analysis_of_the.pdf) CO2 pa (both figures from Bright Source which owns Ivanpah). Yet the gas is limited by CA legislation from producing more than [5% of its output from gas](http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/the-top-five-things#.Vu6RwuJ96Uk).

    I know using gas in boilers (as Ivanpah does) is less efficient than OCGTs but still, these numbers make little sense.

  13. Three years ago, I presented a pro nuclear piece to the parliamentary select committee [3 Labor, 2 Liberal] who were looking at a replacement option for Port Augusta coal. I followed the protagonists for solar thermal. I affirmed that solar thermal was not the way to go and I presented the committee with the following details about Ivanpah.
    The nameplate capacity is 370MW.
    The capacity factor is 31%
    This means that the average power output is about 115MW [about 10% of new nuclear output]
    The cost was $2.2billion which is $19/Watt average.
    This was about 3 times the cost of some recent nuclear power plant builds which most environmentalists have accused of being prohibitively expensive.
    The heliostats used in the project weigh in at 30,000 tonnes. That’s 262 tonnes of heliostats per MW electric average. That’s just for heliostats, not to mention foundations and tower and power block.
    The power plant area to be bulldozed over is 20 times larger than that required by a nuclear reactor of equivalent average [real] capacity [twin unit AP1000].
    Nuclear is safer than any other electricity generation including wind and solar.

    To allow the Ivanpah “experiment” to run for another x years would be the height of fiscal irresponsibility, indeed stupidity.

    The Australian Federal Government has committed us to waste $25 – 30 billion on subsidies for renewables by 2020.

    SA is hell bent on wasting much of that with it’s ill -advised expansion of wind power.

    According to the IEA, the renewables are forecast to generate just 2.4% of the world’s energy by 2040.

    Why would any person continue to waste enormous amounts of public funds for a generation method which will never cut it?

    Decarbonising the world electricity supply will never happen with the renewables. And it won’t happen in SA either with them. We need to stop wasting scarce funds and phase them out as soon as we can [after honouring current contracts]

    And we need to phase in nuclear as soon as we can, which is what I’ve been urging now for 18 years.

    I think we’re almost at political bipartisanship for nuclear now. And we’ve made some progress at last with the Scarce Royal Commission. Would all of you guys please contact your local politicians [state and federal] and lay it on the line that nuclear is the way to go. And stop making excuses of any sort for the renewables. They have been a worldwide scandalous wasteful folly.

    Cheers Ben

    Terry Krieg

  14. The newly combined Arena/CEFC will fund a solar thermal plant at Pt Augusta after all
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-23/solar-thermal-plant-hopes-clean-energy-innovation-fund/7268836?section=environment
    Presumably that’s the 110m tower to be constructed at Sundrop Farms a few kilometres from Northern coal station which is slated for imminent closure. My hunch (also suggested by Watt Clarity) is that Northern could hang on a while yet and maybe they want to paid capacity payments.

    Bring it on I say. If a Pt Augusta solar tower is a boondoggle while maybe Northern gets paid to remain on standby surely Blind Freddie will see it’s not the way ahead.

  15. Solar-thermal remains interesting, because its energy returned on investment appears to be several times that of solar-photovoltaic. I think the future, to the extent it has one, is less in electric generation than in thermochemical or photothermochemical processes, from sewage treatment to the synthesis of hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide & water (some very interesting results on which have been published just recently). A large concentrator-type plant, such as this, would be an ideal laboratory for those kinds of applications. While it may be worth continuing to run Ivanpah for a few years as an instrumented testbed for solar-thermal electricity, I think the alternatives should be considered and planned for.
    Heavens above, we could even turn it into a heavy-water plant!

  16. I agree that Ivanpah should be kept running, but needs to be forced to publish full hourly performance data including the amount of gas that is being used.

    Closing it down would be a terrible waste, as most of the cost and environmental impact has already occurred, so it may as well be used as long as possible. We are in a climate emergency and cannot afford to throw away low carbon generation capacity even if it is underperforming and not as low carbon as advertised.

    This article explains the accounting trick that allows them to stick to the <5% heat from gas rule and still emit 46,000t CO2 for 555,000MWh:

    Most of the gas burning occurs in night boilers that “maintain seals and preserve heat,” and in auxiliary boilers that “allow for a faster start-up” and “ride through certain transient cloud events …” said Knox, the spokesman for plant operator NRG Energy.

    He said the plant still meets a state requirement that no more than 5 percent of its electricity production come from burning fossil fuel. This rule, however, does not factor in the gas burned to heat water before enough steam is generated to produce electricity.

    The trickery shows how easy it is to game rules that rely on arbitrary labels, like “renewable” and arbitrary thresholds, like “5%”. What is needed is the fee-and-dividend approach that Hansen is advocating. The more gas they burn (day or night), the more they pay. Simples.

  17. In terms of land use, a good comparison is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in neighbouring Arizona. Even including the cooling water reservoirs and the sewage treatment works that provide the cooling water, it covers far less land than Ivanpah.
    But this plant reliably produces over 30,000,000 MWh every year (32,500,000 in 2015, 60 times more than Ivanpah). A side by side comparison of satellite images is very instructive. Compare at the same scale first. Then scale Palo Verde down to a 60th of the area to show the footprint of producing the same amount of electricity as Ivanpah with nuclear.

  18. The operator of a massive U.S. government-backed solar project in California that fell short of production targets says the facility more than doubled its output last month, putting it on pace to meet its obligations to Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

    The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the world’s biggest solar-thermal power plant, generated 67,300 megawatt-hours electricity in February, up from about 30,300 a year earlier, according to NRG Energy Inc., which operates the faculty and co-owns it with BrightSource Energy Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2016/03/ivanpah-solar-facility-on-track-to-meet-production-target-nrg-says.html?cmpid=renewablesolar0422016&eid=294701002&bid=1358456

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