Somewhere out in the Mojave desert near the border between California and Nevada, the giant Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station officially began producing electricity this week. Solar power is coming of age, but it is still big and expensive.
The huge solar farm covers about five square miles of federal land in the desert. About 350,000 large mirrors reflect the sunlight onto boilers that sit on top of three towers each about as high as a 40 story building. The extreme heat turns the water into steam and pipes feed the steam to turbines to produce enough electricity for about 140,000 homes each year.
The giant solar farm cost about $2.2 billion that includes a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee. Primary owners are BrightSource Energy, Inc., NRG Energy, INc., and Google, Inc.
BrightSource is the company responsible for developing the Ivanpah tower solar technology. Experts acknowledge that the plant is an engineering marvel, but it is unlikely that other plants like it will be built in California.
That is not because those big mirrors boiling water in the distant towers are focusing enough heat to fry birds that haplessly fly through the site. Although that could become a problem, it is not currently the major issue.
Two economic factors have merged that make building future giant plants using this technology unlikely. First, the funds for the federal guarantees that were available for these projects is pretty much used up. On top of that, California has as much of this kind of energy as it is likely to need.
In 2002, fiercely committed to fighting global warming, California ordered its utility companies to buy more renewable power with the requirement that by 2020, a third of their electricity must come from renewable sources.
That inspired the construction of several huge solar power plants, particularly in the desert where land is plentiful and they can capture the blazing sunshine. With these plants coming online and others currently under construction, California’s utilities probably will not need more.
The fact is that these large solar plants are expensive. Ivanpah requires massive amounts of land and the cost is nearly four times more that a traditional natural gas plant — all that for much less electricity.
The cost of the power produced by the giant solar farms will likely be more than twice the cost of power from conventional sources. What the actual cost may finally be has not been disclosed, but it will certainly be passed on the consumers. Even as solar power comes of age, big and expensive installations are already becoming out dated.
In fact, solar power appears to be nearing some kind of transition point. Projects for the huge solar plants like Ivanpah that were under consideration have been dropped. The issue of the scorched birds is beginning to raise concern and enormous land use and high costs also make them less attractive.
The companies may look globally to find new projects. Africa, Saudi Arabia, and China all look like viable prospects.
The technology is also growing and changing. The cost more common photovoltaic panels that sit on top of buildings and convert the sun’s energy directly to electricity has dropped significantly. As solar power comes of age, the industry is shifting away from big and expensive installations and toward rooftops.
By Sharon I. Fawley