Earth To BrightSource: Give Up, The Media Will Never Get Ivanpah Right

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BrightSource Energy’s massive Ivanpah concentrating solar power plant began ramping up to speed in the Mojave Desert last February, busily cranking out solar-sourced electricity after years of planning and construction. Given the plant’s hefty Energy Department loan guarantee, Ivanpah has also been cranking out controversy from the get-go, with our friends over at Fox News gleefully leading the charge.

We thought that was all over and done with now that the plant is up and running, but earlier this month a new development in Ivanpah’s financing gave Fox another opportunity to pounce. BrightSource has responded with a missive to set the record straight on Ivanpah, so let’s see what the buzz is all about.

BrightSource Ivanpah concentrating solar power plant
Ivanpah CSP (screenshot, courtesy of NRG).

What Is Ivanpah?

At 377 MW, Ivanpah is the largest CSP plant of its kind in the world. Just last August we took note when Power Magazine conferred its prestigious Plant of the Year award on Ivanpah. It’s also worth noting that the developer, energy giant NRG, garnered the “Top Developer” award at the annual Solar Power International conference in October, partly in recognition of the Ivanpah plant.

Ivanpah is also the largest project to get a kickstart from the Energy Department’s Loan Guarantee Program, which just issued a detailed report on its overwhelming success.

Paying off the loan is what generated the latest round of attacks, so BrightSource leads off with that before getting into its top five list of things to set right.

“The Top Five Things Some Media Can’t Seem to Remember About Ivanpah”

Apparently, Fox characterized the payoff process as a “bailout” in the form of a a federal grant. Ivanpah qualifies for a 30% Investment Tax Credit now that it’s operating, and the terms of its loan guarantee require it to use those proceeds to pay down the loan.

 

But, bailout sounds a lot sexier, so how are the story editors supposed to resist that?

As for the five-point list, you can get the full rundown from BrightSource but here’s a quick recap for those of you on the go:

1. “The Ivanpah Project is Meeting Expectations.” As a massive facility deploying innovative technology, Ivanpah is on a learning curve track and it would be silly to expect it to achieve 100 percent operating capacity at the push of a button (as noted by Associated Press, the ramp-up period is expected to take up to four years).

2. “Ivanpah is complying with requirements of the DOE Loan Guarantee Program.”  We just covered that, didn’t we? BrightSource further notes that the Investment Tax Credit was first enacted during the Bush Administration in 2005, with bipartisan support.

For that matter, BrightSource began the loan application in 2006, also during the Bush Administration. The company also notes that along with NRG, Google backed up its application with a hefty investment.

3. “Ivanpah’s impact on Birds is Minimal, But Also a Priority.” Cat owners, can you spell b-e-l-l? According to a study performed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, from January to June 2014, 321 bird deaths occurred at Ivanpah. Of those, 133 were related directly to the concentrated sunlight aka solar flux. We have a problem with that, but let’s keep things in perspective. Between cats, buildings, existing power lines, vehicles, you’re talking hundreds of millions of bird deaths.

4. “We Don’t Control the Weather.” No, really? As luck would have it, Ivanpah has been chugging away this year under “substantially worse” weather conditions than projected by the historical average, which translates directly into lower output than anticipated. So let’s give it a couple more years to see how things shake out.

5. “Natural Gas is Used to Maximize Renewable Energy Generation in Accordance with State Law.” Ugh. In all the excitement over Ivanpah being the world’s largest CSP, the plant’s built-in reliance on natural gas somehow got lost in the sauce.

We have a little problem with natural gas (as does our sister site, PlanetSave), but the plant was designed to kickstart daily operations with natural gas, in order to get ready for incoming sunlight as quickly as possible without compromising the equipment. And yes, the maximum amount of natural gas permitted is written into state law.

Perhaps some day in the sparkling green future Ivanpah will wake up every morning to the tune of renewable biogas from a landfill or a dairy farm or whatever, but in the meantime fossil gas it is.

So, that’s that. If any of this is news to you, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, for all you BrightSource fans out there, the company is already tackling the next big thing. Last summer it inked a deal with Alstom and the Noy Infrastructure and Energy Fund to close out the financing for what will be the largest solar power plant in Israel.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3296 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey