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Waiting On Ivanpah

By Christian Roselund.

The most essential measure of an electricity generation project is not its size, or its degree of technical innovation. It’s the output. And is this regard, Ivanpah has not yet arrived.

Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant .
Image obtained from IIvanpahsolar.com

Now that the fanfare surrounding the dedication of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Systems – the world’s largest single-site solar plant – has faded, and DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz has gone back to Washington, there is little public scrutiny of the massive plant, which occupies five and half square miles near the border of California and Nevada.

Before the dedication ceremony, there were a number of articles that attempted to ask what were presented as tough questions about the 377 MW plant. Among the most popular articles was the one in MIT Technology Review, which looked at the issue of water use in wet-cooled solar thermal electric plants (also called concentrating solar power or CSP).

Ivanpah, like most CSP plants today, is dry-cooled. This issue is at best irrelevant for the project. In all these articles, only one other journalist – Chris Clarke or KCET’s REWIRE – bothered to ask if the plant was actually producing the expected portion of electricity for the grid.

Not fully “online”

According to California grid operator data, on February 15th, 17th and 20th the answer was a definite no. All three of Ivanpah’s units were listed as offline on the 17th and the 20th. On most other days, one or two units have been listed as offline, and on the 15th, neither Ivanpah or any of the state’s other CSP plants produced any power for the grid.

On the 14th and the 18th three units were listed as only partially curtailed. However, on the 14th the plant could not have produced any more than 170 MW of electricity at peak during the day, as that was the height of generation from CSP statewide. Generation on the 18th was even lower, peaking at only 69 MW.

For all of January and early February, Ivanpah’s three units have been on the “curtailed and non-operational list” of the California ISO, which is available on its website. The position changes, but at no time have the three come off. Additionally, there was almost no electricity generation reported from CSP for all but a few days during the month.

This means that the plant is still in operational Limbo – likely producing some power, but far short of full capacity. While commissioning can be a complicated process, this is also a full five months after the first unit was synced to the grid.

Plant co-owner NRG has failed to provide answers, and my email regarding these matters did not receive a response. This has been par for the course. Leading up to February 13th the company asked reporters to wait for the dedication ceremony to answer questions, and now appears loathe to discuss what may be ongoing technical issues.

Bird deaths and the danger of hubris

This is also not the only problem that the plant has had. Despite care taken to minimize damage to tortoises, the deaths of predatory birds caught in the solar flux has been a black eye for Ivanpah. If California regulatory staff get their way, this will prevent other solar power tower CSP projects from being built in the area.

There is an irony here in that Ivanpah has been the most high-profile solar plant in the United States, while other groundbreaking solar projects have been largely ignored. More than four months ago Abengoa commissioned its 280 MW Solana CSP plant, based on a more low-profile and common parabolic trough design. Unlike Ivanpah, The plant contains six hours of energy storage, providing a much greater deal of operational flexibility. While Solana also received a DOE loan guarantee it did not have a gala dedication event with Energy Secretary Moniz, and has received almost no press.

I’m looking forward to NRG, technology supplier BrightSource, and construction contractor Bechtel working out the details of the operation of Ivanpah, and for all three units of the plant to begin producing full power for the California grid.

But I’m not holding my breath.

 
 
 
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