Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Ivanpah Concentrated Solar Power Plant, Nipton, California

At the Clark Mountain base near Nipton, California, the Ivanpah CSP plant’s heliostats (mirrors) collectively shine like two huge mirrors to the sky, with the steam-turbine towers glowing in each center.
No, this isn’t Mars and it isn't science fiction. It’s the Ivanpah Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) facility – the largest CSP plant in the world to date. It’s in the Mojave desert in Nipton, Calif., close to where I-15 crosses the California-Nevada border.

Source: "Ivanpah Project Facts," BrightSource Energy
Basically what you’re looking at are three fields of “heliostats” (curved mirrors), reflecting and concentrating the sun’s rays onto their respective solar receiving towers. The tops of these towers get so hot that they glow white! All that heat is transformed into superheated steam, which runs electrical-generating turbines, just like a traditional power plant.

To give you sense of it’s size, I took the somewhat blurry photo above from more than 15 miles (24 km) away. The facility covers about 3,500 acres (14.2 km2), and the towers are about 459 ft. (140 m) tall.

BrightSource Energy's 392 MW Ivanpah plant by came online in 2014 to much hooplah, but it’s had it’s problems and detractors. First, it was incredibly expensive: $2.2 billion. Of that, $1.6 billion came from a loan guaranteed by the U.S. government. After all that money, it only produced 40% of the predicted electricity in its first year of operation. Some people consider it a boondoggle. But by the first quarter of 2015, they’d increased output by 170%.

To run Ivanpah, though, it takes a lot of natural gas. … Gas? But I thought it’s solar, you say? Apparently, they have to preheat the water every morning. During that time, their CO2 output is twice what California energy standards normally allow for the amount of fuel they’re burning. The state gave the plant a special dispensation. On balance, however, that natural gas only would have produced 124,000 MWh of electricity in a conventional plant, compared to 524,000 MWh at Ivanpah, a more than fourfold increase in efficiency.

The other ongoing concern is the perhaps hundreds of thousands of birds killed yearly by the concentrated solar rays. They’re just fried up in the sky. The power company is working on ways to keep the birds away. Hopefully they’ll succeed in reducing those deaths. I consider, though, as sad as it is, that many, many more birds will die if we don’t get ahead of global warming. It’s a calculated sacrifice. I feel the same way about windmills. Mind you, I think we ought fund a bunch of ornithologists to find a solution!