Ivanpah Solar Power Tower Plant / by Norris McDonald

Located in the Mojave Desert,California’s Ivanpah solar plant is the world’s largest solar power facility plant using concentrated solar technology, also known as solar thermal technology. Unlike the more familiar solar photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar works more like a conventional steam power plant. Instead of using fossil fuels or controlled nuclear reactions to convert water into steam, concentrated solar uses mirrors that focus the sun’s energy on a water source, creating steam that powers turbines.

The Ivanpah facility covers five square miles, uses three 450-foot towers to trap sunlight focused from an array of mirrors, and cost $2.2 billion to build, including a federal loan guarantee of $1.6 billion. A joint venture of NRG Energy, Google, and Brightsource Energy, the state-of-the-art plant was supposed to produce a net of 392 megawatts of electricity, enough power to supply 140,000 homes. 

Ivanpah was a real disappointment in terms of its actual electrical output. It also may have caused more environmental problems than it solved.

For starters, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) signed a contract to buy electricity from Ivanpah, but the facility failed to produce enough electricity to fulfill its obligations to PG&E. This put California regulators in a tough spot, especially given the fact that customers of PG&E pay about $200 per megawatt hour for electricity generated by Ivanpah, making it some of the nation’s most expensive electricity.  In its first year, Ivanpah produced failed to generate even half of its expected output.

Ivanpah has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of birds, most which are scorched to death while flying through the super-heated air surrounding the plant. Construction of the plant also involved the attempted relocation of the local population of endangered tortoises, several of which were killed in the process.  (Pace Energy Fairness, 3/16/2016)