Solar Energy's Real Problem

Dave AngeliniDave Angelini Solar Expert Posts: 6,033 ✭✭✭✭✭
May 26, 2016

Solar Energy's Real Problem

Ivanpah, the world's largest solar power plant located in California's Mojave Desert, caught fire last Thursday, causing damage to one of the plant's three towers.  This latest engineering setback is the least of the plant's woes.  Prohibitive economic realities are the true problem.

Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) decided to postpone its continued support of the struggling facility, which was touted as the future of solar power when it opened in 2014.  But after receiving $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy (DOE) and $535 million from the U.S. Treasury Department, the facility's promising future is turning out to be a multi-billion-dollar waste of money.

Ivanpah is unable to meet its intended electricity generation of 940,000 megawatt-hours per year, despite its designation as the largest concentrated solar plant in the world.  Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) received only 45 percent of the electricity it expected from Ivanpah in 2014 and 68 percent in 2015.

Output is so low, in fact, that it fails to meet Ivanpah's power purchase agreement, which requires a set amount of electricity production for a certain price.

Ivanpah's managers found that the facility needs to produce much more steam than initially thought to run efficiently, which requires substantially more natural gas than originally planned to supplement the concentrated solar each morning.  Weather predictions underestimated the amount of cloud cover the area receives, which prevents the facility from consistently producing high levels of electricity.

Ivanpah is not the first taxpayer-funded renewable to fail.  In 2009, Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer, received a $535-million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy.  The Obama administration encouraged the DOE to expedite the decision-making process so Vice President Biden could announce the program as a political success sooner.  At the same time, Chinese solar panels becamecheaper, and natural gas prices plummeted, making Solyndra a lousy investment.  The DOE convinced Solyndra to delay layoffs until after the 2010 midterm elections as a political move.  In August 2011, Solyndra declared bankruptcy.

Taxpayers paid a half-billion dollars to Solyndra and never saw the promised benefits.  Both Solyndra and Ivanpah were free to make risky investments without risk of failure because the companies funding came through the political system rather than through the competitive market.

Renewable energies undoubtedly have a future in the United States.  As the cost of extracting and using fossil fuels rises and costs for renewables decrease following technology improvements, developing renewable energies will become more cost-effective.  Until then, forcing investment in renewables comes at a huge cost to taxpayers with little reward.

Ryan Yonk, Ph.D., an assistant professor of research at Utah State University, is vice president and executive director of research at Strata.  Devin Stein is a student research associate at Strata.

"we go where power lines don't" Sierra Mountains near Mariposa/Yosemite CA
E-mail [email protected]


  • Dave AngeliniDave Angelini Solar Expert Posts: 6,033 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Yep! They let the smoke out.

    UPDATE: ON WEDNESDAY, May 25, Ivanpah’s operator, NRG energy, confirmed the fire was indeed caused by mirrors that did not track the sun properly, which focused sunlight onto the wrong part of the tower. NRG spokesperson David Knox estimates the plant would be back online within three weeks.

    Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar plant, is a glittering sea of mirrors, concentrating sunlight into three glowing towers. It is a futuristic vision rising out of the Mojave desert. But from the day the plant opened for business in 2014, critics have said the technology at Ivanpah is outdated and too finicky to maintain.

    The latest problem? A fire at one of the plant’s three towers on Thursday, which left metal pipes scorched and melted. As the plant dealt with engineering hiccups, Ivanpah initially struggled to fulfill its electricity contract, and it would have had to shut down if the California Public Utilities Commission didn’t throw it a bone this past March. “Ivanpah has been such a mess,” says Adam Schultz, program manager at the UC Davis Energy Institute and former analyst for the CPUC. “If [the fire] knocks them offline, it’s going to further dig them in.” On top of the technical challenges, the plant has had to deal with PR headaches like reports of scorched birds and blinded pilots from its mirrors.

    Ivanpah’s biggest problem, though, is hard economics. When the plant was just a proposal in 2007, the cost of electricity made using Ivanpah’s concentrated solar power was roughly the same as that from photovoltaic solar panels. Since then, the cost of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels has plummeted to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour (compared to 15 to 20 cents for concentrated solar power) as materials have gotten cheaper. “You’re not going to see the same thing with concentrated solar power plants because it’s mostly just a big steel and glass project,” says Schultz. It can only get so much cheaper.

    Photovoltaic solar systems also have the advantage of scaling up or down easily. You can have one panel on your roof or the airport can have 100, and electricity can be made where it’s used. But for concentrated solar power plants, you need a huge tract of empty land. Ivanpah has 173,500 garage door-sized sets of mirrors spread over 3,500 acres. Each mirror has a motor controlled by a computer, which angles the reflective surface to track the location of the sun.

    All those moving parts make Ivanpah more challenging to maintain than static solar panels. There’s the 173,500 sets of moving mirrors, and then there’s also the towers, where the concentrated sunlight superheats steam to generate electricity—each with their complicated plumbing systems. “The sheer size of these plants make it easy to overlook one little flaw,” says Tyler Ogden, an analyst at Lux Research. The fire department suggested the fire on Thursday was the result of misaligned mirrors that concentrated their death ray on the wrong part of the tower. David Knox, a spokesperson for Ivanpah’s operator, NRG Energy, said it was still too early to tell the cause of the fire. “We are assessing the damage and developing a repair plan,” says Knox.

    Solar Plant FireClick to Open Overlay Gallery
    Damage to the interior of a solar generating tower at the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility.SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT/AP

    Theoretically, concentrated solar power’s advantage is its ability to smooth out energy production. Solar panels produce energy when the sun is shining, and they’re basically roof decorations when they’re not. At Ivanpah, the water in the towers take time to get to electricity-producing temperatures in the morning, but the towers can continue to produce electricity into the early evening—when electricity consumption is coming off its peak. Plants elsewhere, like Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project in Nevada, have mirrors that concentrate energy into tanks of molten salt instead of water, which can store the energy much longer.

    In the US, for now, photovoltaic power is winning out. No one is looking to build more concentrated solar power plants here. But a huge concentrated solar power plant is going up in Morocco, and smaller scale installations in the US have used a curved mirror configuration to generate heat but not electricity. Knox says there may yet be uses for concentrated solar power, and the lessons learned at Ivanpah will chart the path forward. That’s unless those lessons end up being cautionary ones.

    "we go where power lines don't" Sierra Mountains near Mariposa/Yosemite CA
    E-mail [email protected]

  • bill von novakbill von novak Solar Expert Posts: 891 ✭✭✭✭
    May 26, 2016

    Solar Energy's Real Problem

    I . . .

    Renewable energies undoubtedly have a future in the United States.  As the cost of extracting and using fossil fuels rises and costs for renewables decrease following technology improvements, developing renewable energies will become more cost-effective.  Until then, forcing investment in renewables comes at a huge cost to taxpayers with little reward.

    I'd say this is the huge reward for all that money:


    Price of Solar Hits Record Low

    July 10th, 2015 by Nicholas Brown 

    Originally published on Kompulsa (some edits).

    NV Energy, a Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility company, has signed a PPA to purchase electricity from the 100 MW Playa Solar 2 power plant at a stunningly low price of $0.0387/kWh.

    CleanTechnica just reported on “the world’s cheapest solar” landing in Austin, Texas, with bids under 4 cents/kWh (and the assumed unsubsidized price of solar thus being below 5.71 cents/kWh), and that was incredible news, but it looks like that news wasn’t even the highlight of the month.

    Note that 3.87 cents/kWh is approximately 68% cheaper than the national average electricity price. It’s also well below the low levelized cost of electricity of coal, natural gas, or nuclear, according to Lazard. The only electricity generation option that can compete with that is wind energy. Furthermore, it’s much lower than the low of 6 cents/kWh that Lazard was predicting for solar in 2017, even if you add in the expected federal subsidy boost (which brings the price up to 5.53 cents/kWh).


    We would not be here if not for all the money that supported research, early development and early implementation (and even supported some failures.)

  • Dave AngeliniDave Angelini Solar Expert Posts: 6,033 ✭✭✭✭✭
    But what about all the Americans who are not involved with solar and lost out on the (2 billion dollars)?
    It might have been better to e-mail these guy's

    Dear Sir,


    Best compliments of the season. My Name is Utilimu Adadu I am writing on behalf of my client who is a top government official with the Ethiopian government. He does not want his name to be mentioned now until he is sure you will not abuse any information which shall be supplied to you during this business negotiation. I will introduce him to you later after you have assure to maintain absolute confidentiality.


    There is presently an opportunity to supply various Solar and Renewable Energy Products to cover several government projects in Ethiopia and your line of products is in need in high quantity. Government needs direct supply and Payment of goods before each supply.


    Detailed information shall be given to you and instant face to face meeting shall be scheduled with you after I receive your positive response.


    Thanks and remain blessed.



    Utilimu Adadu

    Multilink Consulting

    Haile Gebreselassie Str.


    Fax:+251 911 207364

    Addis Ababa


    "we go where power lines don't" Sierra Mountains near Mariposa/Yosemite CA
    E-mail [email protected]

Sign In or Register to comment.