Milestone: Ivanpah Solar Plant Formally Opens

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.)

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ISEGS consists of three units, each of which is made up of a 459-foot power tower surrounded by tens of thousands of mirrored heliostats -- more than 173,500 in total. Computers aim the heliostats at the towers, where the concentrated solar "flux" heats steam that turns turbines.

That flux has proved a significant environmental concern, as birds and other wildlife have fallen victim to injuries form the concentrated solar radiation. That was enough for the California Energy Commission to tentatively deny a permit for a larger BrightSource-designed plant, the Palen SEGS, located near Joshua Tree National Park in Riverside County. Palen's backers will instead be gathering avian mortality data from Ivanpah to argue for approval for the Palen plant.

The wildlife issue for which Ivanpah is far better known stems from the officially unanticipated presence of hundreds of desert tortoises on the nearly 4,000-acre site, which prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to briefly shut down construction on the plant in 2011. After USFWS rewrote its Biological Opinion on ISEGS to allow for hundreds of tortoise takes rather than the three dozen or so originally projected, the project resumed.

The Ivanpah solar project on February 9, visible from around 40 miles south and about four miles up. | iPhone Photo: Zach Behrens

With the formal launch now out of the way, ISEGS now becomes a proving ground for BrightSource's technology. The CEC will be watching the plant closely for its effect on birds as a condition of possible approval for Riverside County's Palen plant. And energy industry analysts will be studying the plant to see how its technology performs under routine conditions.

The plant, with its official online date set for December 30 of last year, seems to have encountered some apparent glitches in the month and a half since. As we reported earlier this month, the plant spent January with at least one of its three units reporting an unplanned outage on every day of the month. That report was later corroborated by the German energy analyst website Solar Server.

The project seems to be faring better in February, by some measures: while the state's grid operator the California Independent System Operator (CaISO) reports that each of ISEGS' three units reported an unplanned outage every day through the 12th, half of those outages -- called "curtailments" -- involved lowering output rather than going offline altogether.

CaISO also reports that the state's total output of solar thermal energy rose significantly over an apparent low in January, which may be related to greater output at ISEGS. Then again, CaISO's reported peak for February so far, with 1,459 megawatt-hours produced on February 5, is still substantially below the state's solar thermal output on at least eight days in the second half of February 2013, when ISEGS was nowhere near online.

As production ramps up and ISEGS' operators work the bugs out, the power the plant produces will be sold to Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric. BrightSource's technology is in operation at smaller projects, including an oil well enhancement facility in Coalinga. But ISEGS' status as the world's largest concentrating solar facility, made official this week, means the plant's scale is unprecedented by definition.

And that means that the tech's performance now that ISEGS is under contractual obligations to stay online as much as possible should be interesting. We'll be watching.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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