If the owners of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System assumed the plant's formal opening last week would generate a wave of positive press, they're certainly regretting their assumption this week.
Though the ribbon-cutting on February 13 did prompt some uncritical praise from a few sectors, the overwhelming response from mainstream press around the world focused attention on an issue ReWire's been covering almost since we started up in 2012: the risk to birds and other wildlife from the project's concentrated solar radiation.
The project, which formally went online Thursday after three years of construction, uses more than 170,000 mirrored heliostats to focus sunlight on boilers atop three 459-foot towers. As we've written extensively in past months, the concentration of "solar flux" creates extremely high air temperatures near the towers. Those superheated zones around each tower may pose serious risk to birds and other wildlife that fly through them, and it looks as though the world press is taking notice.
It's been a long road for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), from its formal proposal by BrightSource Energy in 2007 through the well-publicized problems with desert wildlife, some of which actually brought construction to a brief halt in 2011. And this week, in a formal ceremony on Thursday, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz ushered the 377-megawatt solar power plant into its next phase, as he formally opened the plant for business.
Moniz lauded the plant in a press release issued before the ceremony, to which ReWire was not invited for some reason. "The Ivanpah project is a shining example of how America is becoming a world leader in solar energy," said Moniz. "As the President made clear in the State of the Union, we must continue to move toward a cleaner energy economy, and this project shows that building a clean energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions, and fosters American innovation."
The Department of Energy backed Ivanpah's construction with $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from its Loan Programs Office. At the ceremony, NRG Energy president Tom Doyle credited that loan guarantee with the plant's successful completion. (Though BrightSource developed the tech used at ISEGS, the plant is co-owned and co-managed by NRG Energy with Google owning part of the plant as well.)
The state agency responsible for regulating California's public utilities has proposed a plan for adjusting to the loss of power from the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant, and part of that plan involves generating a lot more renewable energy -- though environmental activists say the plan could be a lot better.
The proposed decision, released Tuesday by the California Public Utilities Commission, authorizes Southern California Edison to procure from 400 to 700 megawatts of electrical power from energy efficiency, demand response programs, energy storage, and renewable power generating capacity by 2022. San Diego Gas & Electric would be allowed to procure between 200 and 700 megawatts from similar sources.
That should go quite a ways toward replacing the power lost to the system when the beleaguered San Diego County nuclear power plant went offline in 2012, taking more than 2.2 gigawatts of generating capacity off the grid. But at least one environmental group involved in the proceedings is saying the proposal still allows the utilities to buy more gas-fired power, representing a net loss for the state's climate footprint.
The bitter cold that's locked down much of the United States is having an effect even in relatively warm California: demand for natural gas for heating and extra power back east is cutting supplies to Southern California gas-fired power plants. That's prompted the state's grid operator to ask us all to cut down on the power we use.
In other words, the California Independent System Operator Corporation is issuing a statewide Flex Alert for Thursday, February 6, lasting until 10:00 p.m.
"While the natural gas shortage is only impacting Southern California power plants," says CaISO in its announcement Thursday, "statewide electricity and gas conservation will help free up both electricity and gas supplies for Southern Californians. Customers in both Southern and Northern California are asked to reduce their energy use between 1:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m."
An incident of deliberate damage to a Pacific Gas and Electric substation we reported on last April may have been more than vandalism, according to a report published Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal.
In the April 16 incident, phone lines to the Metcalf transmission substation south of San Jose were cut just before snipers shot out 17 large transformers, prompting a Flex Alert that covered much of the south San Francisco Bay Area. Though PG&E still describes the act as vandalism, it was such a methodical assault that the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission called it an act of terrorism.
Though the attack didn't result in blackouts, it took 27 days to bring the substation all the way back online. No one has been arrested in relation to the attack, and the FBI isn't treating it as a terrorist act. But former FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff fears that the Metcalf assault may have been a dry run for a larger attack in the works.
On Friday, ReWire reported on a confusing contradiction concerning the world's largest concentrating solar project in the Mojave Desert. Though press reports indicated the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System went online, figures from the state's grid operator showed that California'a solar thermal power plants generated almost no power during the month of January.
Today, we can report that documents from the California Independent System Operator (CaISO,) which runs most of the state's grid, may shed some light on the apparent discrepancy. While the Ivanpah Project was indeed scheduled to go online on December 30, the project spent the entire month of January with at least one of its units going through unplanned downtime every single day.
To sum up daily reports on the state's power plants' operational status filed by CaISO, the Ivanpah project essentially went from planned to unplanned outage status rather than going online.