Ivanpah, world’s largest solar thermal plant, offically dedicated today

Credit: ivanpahsolar.com/
Credit: ivanpahsolar.com/

The 392-MW Ivanpah solar thermal plant in California near Primm, Nevada officially goes online today, with a dedication ceremony.

Celebrities include execs from the project’s creators NRG Energy, Bechtel, and Brightsource, and financial backers Google and the Department of Energy’s Loan Projects Office which provided a $1.6 billion loan guarantee. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz is flying in to do the ceremonial honors. Grammy-nominated rock band The Fray, which used Ivanpah as the backdrop for their “Helios” album cover and a music video, reportedly will be performing.

Crescent Dunes in Nevada, another solar thermal plant, starts commissioning this week with a series of start-up procedures, testing the system slowly before coming online with full power. It stores excess heat in molten salt so energy can be produced at night too.

Solar thermal energy uses large amounts of water, often in deserts

Ivanpah. One of the few new grid-scaler solar plants, in CA near Primm NV. Credit: ivanpahsolar.com/
Ivanpah. One of the few new grid-scaler solar plants, in CA near Primm NV. Credit: ivanpahsolar.com/

Solar thermal power plants can use twice as much water as fossil fuel plants and are generally in deserts. The problem is obvious, water is pumped from aquifers. The primary advantage solar thermal has over solar photovoltaic (which uses practically no water) is energy can be stored for later use. Solar thermal reflects the heat of the sun to a central tower to power steam turbines. Excess heat can be stored in molten salt and used to create power when the sun isn’t shining. This makes power production steadier and more reliable.

Newer solar thermal plants use dry cooling rather than evaporation. However, it is costlier and doesn’t work efficiently on hot days, forcing cutbacks in production precisely when it is needed the most.

One approach to solving this problem is to oversize the cooling system so that it can deliver enough cooling even on hot days. That’s the approach taken by the developers of California’s new Ivanpah solar thermal plant, which is about to start production. But it adds to the cost of an already expensive system.

However, the extra cost is generally about 5% of the total construction cost and reduces water use by 90% over traditional methods.

Six utility-scale solar power plants now approved for California

The recent approval of six major solar power projects on public land in California shows that the federal government, state governments, and private enterprise really can work together. These projects were fast-tracked after California and the Department of the Interior worked together to make them. The projects are eligible for funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and can also get tax credits. Environmental regulations are stringent with the result that the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council support the projects.

When completed, the combined power generation will be 2.8 GW, more than all but the very largest of nuclear plants, and will power up to 2 million homes. Plus it will be clean, renewable energy too, no nuclear leftovers to store for tens of thousands of years or toxic emissions from coal. The dirty little secret of power in California is that it often comes from coal plants in other states.

Over 24 GW of solar capacity are now planned, under construction, or operational in the US. I say, let’s aim for 100 or 200 GW and really put solar on the map. This is just for tree huggers. Creating our own renewable power makes us less dependent on foreign sources of energy, especially if electric vehicles become prevalent.

The six sites are, in descending order of power output:

Blythe Solar Power Project. 1 GW (1000 MW). It will be the largest solar project ever on public land and will use parabolic trough technology, a form of concentrating solar power, also known as solar thermal. The heat of the sun is reflected on tubes filled with oil, which is used to generate steam for the turbines. One advantage of this technology is that the heat can be stored in molten salt and used to create power when the sun isn’t shining.

Calico Solar Project. 850 MW, near San Bernardino. A huge solar dish focuses sunlight to a point above the dish where it is converted into power.

Imperial Valley Solar Project. 709 MW. First ever solar energy project approved for public land. Solar dish.

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. 370 MW, Solar thermal power. Near San Bernardino. Arrays of heliostat mirrors focus the heat onto a large tower in the middle of the array, where it is converted to energy.

Genesis Solar Energy Project. 250 MW. Parabolic trough. Riverside County.

Chevron Lucerne Valley Solar Project. 45 MW near San Bernardino. Photo-voltaic. This is what most think of as solar power, the energy of the sun is immediately and directly converted into DC electricity using semiconductors.

Not only will these projects create locally-produced renewable energy, they will also create jobs during a recession. And they show that is a time of much political squabbling that governments and business can work together.

(Cross-posted from CAIVN)