For the first time in its 131-year history, POWER Magazine has conferred its prestigious “Plant of the Year” award on a renewable energy electricity plant. That would be the Ivanpah concentrating solar power plant in California, which just went online as one in a set of five such utility scale power plants supported partly by the US Department of Energy. Ivanpah also had a substantial investment from Google, so it looks like the company’s bet on concentrating solar power has paid off.
The Ivanpah Concentrating Solar Power Plant
We have to admit that we fudged the number a bit — Power Magazine has been publishing for 131 years but it started giving out the Plant of the Year award 40 years ago — but still, that’s pretty impressive.
We’ve been following Ivanpah for several years along with our sister site PlanetSave, partly because of the high degree of interest it has attracted from leading renewable energy players in the public and private sectors.
In addition to $168 million investment by Google and a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, the project involved NRG, BrightSource Energy, and the global engineering firm Bechtel.
The POWER Magazine Plant Of The Year Award
Our focus has been mainly on the concentrating solar technology. For a fascinating look into the nitty gritty of the plant’s construction and the reasons why it garnered Plant of the Year, check out Thomas W. Overton’s article on the Ivanpah award at PowerMag.com.
The Plant of the Year award has been called Power Magazine’s most prestigious award. In addition to numerous firsts in terms of construction and the numerous obstacles in the plant’s way, Overton also lists some of the obvious factors that came into consideration in granting the award to Ivanpah:
The largest solar thermal plant in the world, the first large-scale concentrating solar power (CSP) project in the U.S. to employ power tower technology, and the biggest project funded to date by the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Loan Projects Office (LPO).
That’s nothing compared to the detailed rundown Overton provides in the article. Seriously, go check it out for an in-depth look at what went into building the plant, including changes in design that were made to accommodate environmental concerns.
The heliostats alone are worth the Tolstoy treatment (heliostat is solarspeak for the mirrors that concentrate sunlight in a concentrating solar power plant). Ivanpah includes 173,000 heliostats, which according to Overton’s info involved 22 million rivets and another 20 million other components.
As for getting the heliostats to the site, Overton did the math so we don’t have to: it involved a dedicated transportation system capable of delivering 500 heliostats into the field daily, for two years.
Trouble Ahead For Concentrating Solar Power…
The Energy Department has been touting 2014 as the “Year of Concentrating Solar Power,” and it has made a pretty good case that the technology has a utility-scale role to play in the US energy future.
However, Overton notes that the sheer size of Ivanpah-style projects presents a significant roadblock in terms of environmentally sound site selection. The issues include bird deaths related to the heliostats, although those numbers (from dozens to a few hundred) evaporate compared to the estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds killed annually by domestic cats in the US.
Although concentrating solar power plant construction may stall temporarily, our bet is on a long term recovery, especially when you consider CSP plants that include thermal energy storage.
Aside from cost-effectiveness of the technology itself, over the long run the environmental cost of site selection for CSP plants is going to look pretty good compared to the risks and impacts of fossil fuel harvesting.
On top of climate change and well-documented public health effects that includes local impacts such as chronic economic malaise (coal), earthquakes and water resource competition (oil and gas fracking), and of course, spills.
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