Ivanpah Generation Is On Track

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In a successful launch of the world’s largest, and the first utility-scale CSP power tower technology in the US, the 377 MW Ivanpah tower project is gradually ramping up year on year, as predicted by its developer, BrightSource.

According to generation numbers from the Energy Information Agency (EIA), Ivanpah has almost doubled its output in the first 6 months of 2015, to 309,288 MWh, compared to the same 6-month period in its first year, when it generated 173,966 MWh.

Ivanpah Electricity Generation First 6 Months Year 1 + 2

Ivanpah Follows Predicted Ramp-Up

Back in 2010 — as you can see below — BrightSource had already noted, in an official filing with the US Department of Energy (DOE) Loan Program Office (LPO), that the firm predicted that it would hit its target after a gradual ramp-up over the first four years of operation.

2010-Ivanpah rampup expected to take 4 years

“As with any plant representing new and innovative technology, there will be an initial shake-out and ramp-up period when the plant is placed into operation. As such, initial performance will be less than full design; however, over time, plant performance will increase towards designed full-rated annual performance (referred to as mature-year performance). This increase is caused by the realization of the operator’s learning curve, procedural optimization, and fine-tuning of equipment and systems for increased plant performance. For the Ivanpah project, BrightSource Energy, Inc. (BSE) has proposed that this ramp-up process may last up to four years.” 

Once the four-year ramp-up is complete, Ivanpah is expected to be generating 940,000 MWh annually.

In its first full year, 2014, Ivanpah generated 424,000 MWh, 45% of its 2018 goal of 940,000 MWh. With the new figures for the first half of 2015 from EIA, it appears that generation will be around 600,000 MWh in 2015, in other words — about 60% of the year-four target in year two.

Ivanpah generation 940 MWh

This might be pretty ho hum energy industry news if it weren’t for the fact that these facts have not been reported. On the contrary. These facts have been misreported:

AP: “The largest solar power plant of its type in the world — once promoted as a turning point in green energy — isn’t producing as much energy as planned.”


AP: “It could take until 2018 for the plant backed by $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees to hit its annual peak target, said NRG Energy Inc., which operates the plant and co-owns it with Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy.”

I spoke several times with then-NRG Energy spokesman Jeff Holland during all these various trumped-up brouhahas at Ivanpah, like the astounding lies about birds, designed to fell more power tower technology. (Which succeeded.)

Holland always made it quite clear to me — and so no doubt to AP reporters as well — that the 2010 filing had already laid out the expectation of gradual ramp-up to full operation over four years. He would never have said — wrings hands — “it could take until 2018.”

Even the DOE itself has been deliberately misrepresented, according to one unhappy official who contacted me on condition of anonymity. He told me that the DOE tried to convey to a Wall Street Journal reporter that Ivanpah’s expected generation figure of 940,000 MWh annually is for year four — not year one.

Ivanpah rampup on schedule

Instead, the WSJ ran the opposite headline:

“High-Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver — $2.2 billion California project generates 40% of expected electricity

“Some costly high-tech solar power projects aren’t living up to promises their backers made about how much electricity they could generate.”

(Incidentally, Ivanpah’s 2014 generation of 424,000 MWh equals 45% of 940,000 MWh, not 40%)

He also told this WSJ reporter that every power plant, be it combined cycle natural gas or CSP, has a ramp-up period to work out the kinks — “I would guess any power industry engineer would attest to that. Unfortunately, that did not make it in there.”

With its fossil industry focus, you’d expect the Wall Street Journal at least knows that.

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But OMG!!! It’s 60% gas!!

The other line of attack is that the plant’s request to raise by 60% its use of gas is somehow because this “high-tech” solar is just not up to doing its job. They had to get gas to do more than half of it.

Greentech Media: “Another sign of the plant’s early operating woes: In March, the owners sought permission to use 60 percent more natural gas in auxiliary boilers than was allowed under the plant’s certification, a request that was approved in August.”

A 60% increase in gas! It’s over half gas!! In fact, Ivanpah was originally slated to use 2%. So what’s the math here? A 60% increase of a 2% use results in use under 3%. This increase barely budges Ivanpah’s gas use.

So is around 3% of gas making electricity?  Of course not.

Overnight, any CSP plant without storage (like Ivanpah) is ‘asleep.’ However, its turbines are kept revolving very slowly so they won’t cool all the way down and then be damaged by heat stress when the sun comes up and they start up again. In the morning, to warm up in the wakeup process, a small amount of natural gas is used at Ivanpah to gradually get the turbines warmed up as the sun comes up and takes over.

BrightSource designed Ivanpah as a direct steam CSP tower that simply boils water in the receiver, so instead of using its stored solar energy, it uses a small amount of gas for power block startup. Ivanpah, as the first of its kind at such scale, was not designed to include storage as well. Small steps.

(Of course, when a CSP plant includes storage, like the more recent 280 MW Solana project in Arizona or the 110 MW Crescent Dunes in Nevada — and like most CSP projects developed globally after 2011 — its own molten salt heat storage can be used to supply the fuel for the initial startup instead.)

This need to prevent turbines from cooling is not unique to CSP, but is common to all thermal power plants that use a thermal power block with steam-driven turbines, to combust coal, or uranium, or natural gas, as writers at the Wall Street Journal must surely well know.

Like geothermal and hydropower, CSP is a renewable source that uses turbines.

Understanding this possible need for a little non-renewable energy in these kinds of renewable technologies that use turbines, in AB 1954 (Skinner), signed into law by Governor Brown in 2010, the California Energy Commission (CEC) allowed a “de minimus” of 2% and — on a case-by-case basis — up to 5% of non-renewable energy to be used in maintaining the power block at maximum in renewable plants.

In a democracy, the Fourth Estate is supposed to be at least fact-checked. It is really sad that it’s not, and especially in cases when the facts matter.

And facts do matter when it comes to a future powered by a sustainable form of energy.

Fact: The largest CSP tower project globally is on track to reach its 2018 goal and it uses a few percent of gas to assist in power block maintenance.

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