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Published on February 13th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Controversial Ivanpah Solar Power Plant Sets Record, Settles Controversy

February 13th, 2014 by  

You’re going to be hearing a lot about this one: today, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is officially dedicating the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System. The massive new facility, now up and running at Ivanpah Dry Lake in California after a series of successful shakedown tests, has set a record as the world’s largest CSP (concentrating solar power) plant of its type.

While the success of the Ivanpah CSP plant gains the US a claim to fame in the hotly competitive global solar tech market, here at home the massive project has gained notoriety for the whopping $1.6 billion loan guarantee it received from the Department of Energy’s much maligned (at least, by the usual maligners) Loans Programs Office.

Ivanpah CSP plant

Ivanpah CSP plant courtesy of NRG.

We’ve also been keeping a close eye on the 392 MW project because of its A-list array of developers including the company NRG (known for its EV charging stations and freestanding solar canopies), BrightSource Energy, and of course Google, which put up a cool $168 million to help build it, as well as the global engineering firm Bechtel.

About That Ivanpah CSP Controversy…

Back in 2012 Representative Darrell Issa (R- CA), head of the House Oversight Committee, put the Ivanpah CSP plant on the hot seat over a flurry of emails between the company and the Energy Department, as part of an investigation of “preferred treatment” received by six alternative energy projects.

The Committee appeared to be anticipating a Solyndra-style financial collapse by some or all of those projects, including the Ivanpah CSP plant, but rumors of its death were premature, to say the least, and the investigation fizzled out.

For the record, financial risk is a feature, not a bug, of the DOE loan program, which started under the Bush Administration in a push to cement public-private partnerships into the US civic structure. Overall, the program has been a stunning success.

Congress had actually set aside a $10 billion loan loss reserve for the DOE loan program to cover anticipated losses, and as of last year those losses only came up to less than ten percent of that amount.

Ivanpah CSP Plant Powers Up

We’ve been following the Ivanpah project since shovels hit the ground in 2010, with completion expected late in 2013.

Sure enough, in March 2013 the passed its first “flux,” test, in which the plant’s thousands of heliostats (a fancy word for mirror), focused solar energy onto the boiler, bringing it just below the point of steam.

The next step was a shakedown of the plant’s steam pathways, and by September 2013 it was ready for a critical first “sync” test, which it also passed swimmingly (sync refers to synchronizing power output from the plant to the grid).

Earlier this month, various headlines suggested that the plant is now fully operational, but to the best of our knowledge it is still engaged in what is obviously a longer process than simply flipping a switch.

Nevertheless, given the success of the project so far, DOE is on pretty secure footing by going ahead with today’s dedication ceremony.

It’s also a good opportunity for DOE to tout the success of the loan program, which aside from the world’s largest CSP also includes one of the world’s largest wind farms, the first solar thermal storage project and the first power tower with solar thermal storage in the US, and some of the world’s largest parabolic trough CSP plants.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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