The Ivanpah concentrated solar power plant in the California Mojave desert near Primm Nevada is not producing nearly as much electricity as predicted. Natural gas, not the heat of the sun, is being used more than originally projected to power the turbines. CSP works by reflecting the heat of the sun from heliostat mirrors to a central tower to run the turbines. Ivanpah has produced a mere 25% of expected electricity since December 2013 when it began production, a dismal result indeed.
The scale of Ivanpah is much larger than any other CSP plant. The plant operator says the weather wasn’t as sunny as expected. This seems a bogus excuse. Was there really 75% less sunshine than projected?
[Second quarter] sales totaled 133,807 MWh and at an average price of $167.85/MWh that generated $22.46 million in revenue.
That relatively small output, combined with the project’s $2 billion price tag, could no doubt hurt all three Ivanpah owners
Increasingly, CSP is having trouble competing with solar PV. If Ivanpah continues to under-perform, then future CSP plants may not get funded. . Ivanpah was funded by NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource Energy primarily by using a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee. If Ivanpah continues to falter and the federal government get stuck with the loan, it’ll seriously affect renewable energy funding going forward.
Another sign of the plant’s early operating woes: In March, the owners sought permission (PDF) to use 60 percent more natural gas in auxiliary boilers than was allowed under the plant’s certification, a request that was approved in August.
Using much more natural gas to produce energy rather than using solar heat as planned could, if it continues, might make Ivanpah not able to qualify as being renewable energy under the California plan for 33% in-state renewable energy by 2020. Plus, it’ll make foes of renewable energy chortle with laughter.
Some CSP plants store excess heat in underground molten salt caverns and thus can product energy when the sun isn’t shining. Inexplicably, Ivanpah doesn’t do this, a decision probably made to save money. In retrospect, this seems short-sighted and may imperil the entire project.