Solar plant producing less power than expected, so owners seek more tax money

BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar power plant.

As you drive south on I-15 and cross into California you can’t help but be mesmerized by the three shimmering towers that are the focus of an array of mirrors and squint to try to catch a glimpse of a smoking bird plummeting to earth, cooked in the 800-degree heat that also boils water and generates a bit of electricity.

But the plant may turn out to be more of a black hole for taxpayer and ratepayer money. After getting a $1.6 billion loan from the Energy Department to build the $2.2 billion plant its owners — NRG Energy, Google and BrightSource Energy — now are seeking a $536 million federal grant to help pay off that federal loan, according to an article in Forbes.

This because the sun has not cooperated with an adequate amount of sunshine. Instead of operating at 30 percent of its rated capacity as anticipated, it is operating at a mere 12 percent. Earlier this year the plant owners asked to be allowed to use more natural gas than had been planned due to this underperformance.

The plant has contracts with California utilities to sell power for 12 cents per kWh, about three times the cost of a natural gas plant, but even if the plant were operating at full capacity its construction cost would be 9 cents per kWh, according to the Forbes write. With operating costs the fact it is underproducing, this would appear to leave no room for something we like to call profit, with which I’m sure the plant’s billionaire owners are familiar, though risk is something to which they are averse.

The plant also uses something the desert doesn’t have much of: water. It sucks 32 million gallons of groundwater a year for its boilers, and that is more than can be naturally replenished. That is called water mining. Eventually, they will run out.

Now, how did this project get built on federal public land in the first place?

According to an Inspector General report, Steve Black, at the time a senior counselor to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, pressed scientists to soft pedal their estimates of the damage Ivanpah would cause to endangered species, such as the desert tortoise.

The Crescent Dunes power plant near Tonopah is scheduled to go online after the first of the year. It will use focused sun rays to melt salt instead of boil water. We shall see how it does. It was built with more than $700 million in federal loans.



11 comments on “Solar plant producing less power than expected, so owners seek more tax money

  1. Athos says:

    Greenies meet reality!

    Meanwhile, the connected, and the politicians get rich off our tax dollars and our stupidity.

  2. Steve says:

    Molten salt is intriguing as it can generate all night long…I know Tom will keep an eye on that one!

    Thanks, Tom!

  3. That is the idea. But it is new tech.

  4. Steve says:

    Birds will be sacrificed, same as Ivanpah.

    Will 24/7 output be an acceptable trade off?

  5. Winston Smith says:

    It’s the thought that counts…

  6. Rincon says:

    Three observations:

    1) The Forbes article disagrees completely with another from an industry magazine. Forbes says the plant is using 32 million gallons of water per year, while Power magazine says it’s 7,300,000 gallons. Which is wrong? Admittedly it’s still a lot of water, but Conservatives generally advocate using resources, rather than leaving them locked in the ground. Is anyone going to be affected by this water withdrawal? And how much water would a coal plant use anyway? Perhaps just as much? If Forbes is the one that’s wrong, can we trust their other figures?
    2) If weather is truly to blame, it should be easy to prove or disprove – which Forbes didn’t appear to bother with. Barring climate change, weather will average out in the longer term, so this should be a nonissue.
    3) Ivanpah is merely acting like all the other billion dollar businesses in this country with their mouths agape like baby birds asking for government handouts. It hardly proves that the project won’t perform in the long run, so just say no. Simple.

  7. Athos says:

    Geez, Rin. Why don’t you just flush all your money down the toilet, and throw yourself on to the loving arms of Big Government? I’m sure the great state of Illinois will take exceptional care of you (because they really do care for their citizens).

  8. Rincon says:

    Loving or hating government should not affect the legitimacy, or the lack thereof, of my argument.

  9. Steve says:

    Hard to say how much water the plant uses from your link, Rincon. It states the water use for the first 100 days of operation. I know they had only one boiler at a time in operation for quite a while.
    There is nothing in that article that details per boiler or all three in full operation. Nor does it say how much is used on the mirrors vs the boilers.

    Both articles have a problem on this front, neither cite any source for the water consumption.

    Forbes tries to treat the plant as the end unit while Power Mag calls it start up tech that should lead to molten salt…but a molten salt system had already broke ground during the construction phase of Ivanpah.

  10. Rincon says:

    Thank you Steve, for shedding more light on this. If the water figures given were for only one boiler, I would accuse the writer of being a cheerleader and not a journalist. On the other hand, if only one boiler was running for awhile, it would also explain why it’s running at 12% capacity instead of 30. In that case, we would tar and feather the Forbes author. The bottom line, as you pointed out, is that no firm conclusions can be drawn due to insufficient information.

  11. […] it has been reported that plant has applied to used more natural gas to get its boilers operating when the sun fails to do the job, the story details that operators had […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s