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January 31st, 2013

A BrightSource for Solar Energy in the Desert

by Andrew Price, President & COO

On a recent trip to visit CES client, Molycorp Minerals, located at Mountain Pass California, I had the opportunity to visit the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station (Ivanpah) located in Ivanpah Dry Lake, California. The project, owned by NRG Energy, Google and Brightsource Energy, is not your traditional solar project. Ivanpah will use 170,000 mirrors, each capable of independently tracking the sun across the sky, to focus sunlight on one of three 460 foot tall towers. The high-tech system of collecting and concentrating sunlight ultimately produces electricity in a very mundane way; by boiling water to produce steam and sending that steam through a conventional steam turbine and generator. This is the very same process used to generate the vast majority of the world’s electricity, just without the coal, nuclear fission, or biomass. 

You will notice that I did not exclude natural gas. Unique for a solar project, Ivanpah is connected to a major interstate gas pipeline, Kern River. Being able to “firm” the solar output with supplemental natural gas will allow the project to produce a steady electrical output. This part of the Mohave Desert may receive sunlight as many as 350 days per year but, inconvenient for solar, it still has 365 nights.

The $2.2 billion Ivanpah project covers 3,500 acres of desert and has been under construction since the fall of 2010. When completed later this year, Ivanpah will produce 377 MW of power and 1,080,000 MWh of electricity. The project’s 33% capacity factor will be very high for solar but about equal to a typical wind farm. When completed, it will be the largest solar concentrating project in the world. The project exports power via a 115 kV transmission line owned by Southern California Edison (SCE) and its output is already sold under long term contract to California utility SCE and Pacific Gas and Electric.  

The project has not had entirely smooth sailing. The project sponsor, Brightsource Energy, canceled a planned initial public offering last spring. About $60 million has been needed to study and accommodate the desert tortoise, a federally threatened species that finds this part of the seemingly inhospitable desert home.

The real challenge to solar concentrating power stations like Ivanpah, however, is found just a few miles away. The 50 MW Silver State North solar PV project, developed by First Solar, is just visible from Rt. 15 if you know what to look for. First Solar has announced a 400 MW Silver State South Project on 13,000 acres and a 300 MW Stateline Solar PV project nearby the Ivanpah project.

Solar photovoltaic, or PV, technology has become so cheap that it is stealing many of the renewable energy investment dollars that might otherwise be flowing to solar thermal projects like Ivanpah. In early January, Warren Buffet, via his MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., announced that he would spend as much as $2.5 billion to build two solar PV plants with a combined capacity of almost 580 MW in California.  Buffet has already invested $2.4 billion on a 550 MW solar PV farm in Topaz California. Bloomberg reported that Buffet may earn more than a 16% percent return on his investments by selling the electricity under long term contract at about $150 per MWh.

After investing about $170 million in the Ivanpah project, Google announced in 2011 that it would avoid additional solar thermal projects in the future, citing high costs of solar thermal compared to solar PV.

Brightsource, which is planning additional solar thermal projects, will clearly have to keep working to lower costs to keep up with fast moving solar PV.

 (Tags: Brightsource Energy, Solar, NRG Energy, Google, Concentrating, Thermal, PV, photovoltaic)

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