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Controversial Solar Plant Producing Way Less Power Than Expected

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All three of Ivanpah's units generating power on August 7 | Photo: Kevin Baird/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A solar power plant in the Mojave Desert that's attracted negative attention for its injuries to birds is producing a whole lot less power than it's supposed to, according to Energy Department figures.

According to stats from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a number-crunching branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County has produced only about a quarter of the power it's supposed to, with both less than optimal weather and apparent mechanical issues contributing to the shortfall.

ReWire's colleague Pete Danko, who shared the story Wednesday over at Breaking Energy, reports that Ivanpah's three units generated a disappointing 254,263 megawatt-hours of electricity from January through August. Ivanpah's owners had expected the solar plant to produce well over a million megawatt-hours of electrical power in that eight-month period.

Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, Ivanpah's designer and co-owner with NRG Energy and Google, told Danko that the desert had failed to live up to its promise of non-stop sunshine. "Weather at Ivanpah since February has generally been worse than expected, resulting in reduced output," said a company spokesperson.

Equipment issues were also behind some of the lackluster performance, according to the spokesperson, who told Danko:

As with any new plant, there have been some equipment challenges which impacted plant availability, although we have seen a consistent improvement in performance since the plant went on-line earlier this year.

As ReWire reported earlier this year, those equipment problems did indeed affect Ivanpah's output in the first months of operation. Despite the company's reassurances to Pete Danko, however, those issues seem to have persisted into September and October, past the end of the period for which performance figures were provided by the Energy Department.

According to records of power plant outages -- "curtailments" -- made public by the California Independent System Operator, which runs most of the state's power grid, Ivanpah spent most of September and about half of October (so far) with at least one of its three units offline.

On 13 days so far in October, at least one of Ivanpah's units was offline. On a few of those days more than one unit was down, losing Ivanpah 18 "unit-days" of power output.

September was even more disappointing, with 21 days in which at least one unit was down and 42 "unit-days" of power production lost. Given that September hath 30 days, and thus 90 unit-days, losing 42 unit-days means Ivanpah at best would have produced only about 53 percent of its expected output, and that's not accounting for the partial unit curtailments (every day in September) or pesky clouds.

As Danko points out, Ivanpah's owners have recently sought extensions on the repayment schedule for the $1.6 billion in government-backed loans that paid for Ivanpah's construction, hoping to delay writing checks until the firms can secure a government grant they hope to use to pay down the loan.

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