World’s Largest Solar Thermal Plant Comes Online; Concern Grows over Bird Mortality
On February 13, 2014, a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrated the commercial operation of the 392 MW Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Located in the Mojave Desert on the California-Nevada border, the project is the largest solar thermal power project in the world and represents nearly 30% of the solar thermal energy capacity in the United States.
- The facility consists of 173,500 heliostats or mirrors that track and reflect the sun onto three 450-ft. towers which contain boilers that convert water to steam for electric generation
- Solar thermal can provide more predictable output and avoid the steep ramps associated with solar PV; storage technologies also exist, but this was not installed at Ivanpah
- The intense heat surrounding the towers, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, appears to have killed dozens of birds over the last several months; a two-year study is being conducted to understand the facility’s impact on birds
- The $2.2 billion project was supported by a $1.6 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy
- The project is owned by Brightsource Energy, Google, and NRG Energy; power from two units is being sold to Pacific Gas & Electric under long-term power purchase agreements; power from the third unit is being sold to Southern California Edison under a similar contract
Concentrating solar power has a distinct advantage over solar PV and wind in that the energy can be stored and dispatched similar to conventional generation resources. However, future deployments will be limited because of concern over environmental impacts, high costs relative to other generation technologies, and restrictions to development in the arid Southwest (i.e., technology does not perform well in humid climates).
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