Thursday, February 13, 2014

The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project opens for business

The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project

At California's Ivanpah Plant, Mirrors Produce Heat and Electricity—And Kill Wildlife


Regulators are having second thoughts about approving new solar projects due to growing evidence tower-and-mirror solar technology is killing birds. WSJ's Cassandra Sweet reports on digits. Photo: Getty Images.

A giant solar-power project officially opening this week in the California desert is the first of its kind, and may be among the last, in part because of growing evidence that the technology it uses is killing birds.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is scheduled to speak Thursday at an opening ceremony for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, which received a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee.

The $2.2 billion solar farm, which spans over five square miles of federal land southwest of Las Vegas, includes three towers as tall as 40-story buildings. Nearly 350,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect sunlight onto boilers atop the towers, creating steam that drives power generators.

The owners of the project— NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy Inc., the company that developed the "tower power" solar technology—call the plant a major feat of engineering that can light up about 140,000 homes a year.

Temperatures around the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System's towers can hit 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Zuma Press

Ivanpah is among the biggest in a spate of power-plant-sized solar projects that have begun operating in the past two years, spurred in part by a hefty investment tax credit that expires at the end of 2016. Most of them are in California, where state law requires utilities to use renewable sources for a third of the electricity they sell by 2020.

Utilities owned by PG&E Corp. and Edison International have agreed to buy electricity generated from the Ivanpah plant under 25-year contracts, according to NRG.

Utility-scale solar plants have come under fire for their costs–Ivanpah costs about four times as much as a conventional natural gas-fired plant but will produce far less electricity—and also for the amount of land they require.

That makes for expensive power. Experts have estimated that electricity from giant solar projects will cost at least twice as much as electricity from conventional sources. But neither the utilities that have contracted to buy the power nor state regulators have disclosed what the price will be, only that it will be passed on to electricity customers.

New utility-scale projects began operating at a record rate in the fourth quarter of 2013, adding 1,141 megawatts of capacity, according to research firm SNL Energy. But only a handful of new projects were announced, totaling 13 megawatts.

BrightSource wants to build a second tower-based solar farm in California's Riverside County, east of Palm Springs. But the state Energy Commission in December proposed that the company instead use more conventional technologies, such as solar panels or mirrored troughs.

One reason: the BrightSource system appears to be scorching birds that fly through the intense heat surrounding the towers, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company, which is based in Oakland, Calif., reported finding dozens of dead birds at the Ivanpah plant over the past several months, while workers were testing the plant before it started operating in December. Some of the dead birds appeared to have singed or burned feathers, according to federal biologists and documents filed with the state Energy Commission.

Mirrors reflect sunlight on to boilers atop the Ivanpah facility's towers to create steam for generating power. The Washington Post/Getty Images

Regulators said they anticipated that some birds would be killed once the Ivanpah plant started operating, but that they didn't expect so many to die during the plant's construction and testing. The dead birds included a peregrine falcon, a grebe, two hawks, four nighthawks and a variety of warblers and sparrows. State and federal regulators are overseeing a two-year study of the facility's effects on birds.

"With the data we've gathered, it's far too early in the process to draw any definitive conclusions about long-term impacts on avian or other species," said Jeff Holland, a spokesman for NRG, the project's operator, which is based in Princeton, N.J.

BrightSource has "confidence in the technology and its ability to operate and perform as expected," said Joe Desmond, a spokesman for the company, adding that he thinks it will be able to resolve the problem of bird deaths and build more big plants in California and elsewhere.

The solar-technology company, which remains closely held after canceling a planned public offering in 2012, intends to use its technology in China and other countries, Mr. Desmond said.

By the Numbers

Facts about the Ivanpah project
$2.2 BILLION Cost of power plant's construction
3,500 Acres covered by the plant, about five square miles
459 FEET Height of each of three towers, which are topped by boilers
347,000 Number of garage door-size mirrors that are used to reflect sunlight
140,000 Homes per year for which the plant is expected to generate electricity

The company put plans for a third California solar farm on indefinite hold last year, and it abandoned a proposed fourth project for which it had sought state approval in 2011.

In response to BrightSource's blueprint for its second big solar farm in Riverside County, near Joshua Tree National Park, biologists working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told state regulators that they were concerned that heat produced by the project could kill golden eagles and other protected species.

"We're trying to figure out how big the problem is and what we can do to minimize bird mortalities," said Eric Davis, assistant regional director for migratory birds at the federal agency's Sacramento office. "When you have new technologies, you don't know what the impacts are going to be."

The agency also is investigating the deaths of birds, possibly from colliding with structures, found at two other, unrelated solar farms. One of those projects relies on solar panels and the other one uses mirrored troughs. Biologists think some birds may have mistaken the vast shimmering solar arrays at all three installations for a lake and become trapped on the ground after landing.

Another concern about the second BrightSource project involves the height of the towers, which would be 750 feet tall, roughly the same as a 69-story building. Indian tribes have objected to the project, saying the tall towers and the light emitted from the facility's mirrors would be visually obtrusive.

The Ivanpah plant draws water for the boilers atop its towers, and for washing its many thousands of mirrors, from underground wells at the site. The water will be recycled; an on-site treatment plant will filter out wastewater sludge, which a waste hauler will remove and dispose of, according to the company.

The plant was more expensive to build than a similar-size conventional solar-power plant would be today, particularly as prices for solar panels, a rival technology, have fallen over the past few years. Many of the solar power facilities currently being developed are smaller than the Ivanpah plant, such as rooftop solar panel installations and solar farms built near cities and towns where there is less space available.

Future of solar unclear as big plant comes online

Updated 8:20 am, Thursday, February 13, 2014

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Some of the 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors, each about 7 feet high and 10 feet wide, reflect sunlight to boilers that sit on 459-foot towers. The sun's power is used to heat water in the boilers' tubes and make steam, which in turn drives turbines to create electricity Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 in Primm, Nev. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, will be opened formally Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles. P

On a desert plain not far from the Nevada border, vast fields of mirrors focus sunlight on three tall towers filled with water.
The intense light turns the water to steam. Pipes feed the steam through nearby turbines, generating enough electricity to power a small city.
Designed by BrightSource Energy in Oakland, the $2.3 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which officially enters operation Thursday, helps meet a goal pursued by California officials and private companies for more than a decade.
Yet BrightSource and other makers of solar power plants can't savor the moment for too long. Like any other business, they must find new customers.
That won't be easy.
Determined to fight global warming, the state in 2002 ordered its utilities to buy more renewable power, which prompted the construction of massive solar power plants, many located in the desert to tap the area's fierce sunshine. Those plants, meant to supply electricity to customers of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison, are now coming online.

More than enough

But California's utilities probably won't need more large solar power plants after the ones currently under development enter service. State law requires the utilities to get one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2020. Ivanpah and the other projects under way should generate more than enough.
"The glory days, if you will, are behind us," said Tom Doyle, president of NRG Solar, the majority owner of Ivanpah. (Google also invested $168 million in the project.)
One possibility is to venture overseas. Doyle sees strong potential growth in Saudi Arabia, which has ambitious goals for using more solar power. BrightSource is pursuing projects in China, Morocco and South Africa.
States such as Georgia and Nevada have shown some interest as well.
In the end, the best opportunity for solar plant makers may still rest with California. Companies have been urging officials to raise the state's renewable power goals, perhaps to 50 percent. A law passed in Sacramento last year paved the way for such a step by giving state regulators the authority to raise the requirement on their own, without going through the Legislature first. But the timing and size of any increase - assuming it happens at all - remain uncertain.
"We're approaching a pretty big transition point here in California," said Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy in San Francisco. Recurrent develops utility-scale solar plants that, unlike BrightSource's, use photovoltaic cells to generate power. The company announced this month that it has completed six projects in California and Arizona, although all are much smaller than Ivanpah.
'The procurement of new projects has really slowed, almost to a standstill," Harris said. "This year is going to be a really big year for us, in terms of deciding our level of investment in California."
The cost of electricity from utility-scale solar plants that use photovoltaic panels has plunged in recent years, dropping nearly 48 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But it remains more expensive than electricity from standard power plants burning natural gas. Without some kind of government incentive driving the market, photovoltaic plants can't directly compete.

Price pressure

Some developers in California have proposed projects with electricity prices lower than those from natural gas plants, Doyle said. Many doubt whether they can deliver.
"One of the questions you have to ask is, are those real prices?" Doyle said.
Ivanpah uses a different technology known as "solar thermal" or "concentrating solar power." That technology isn't as widely used as photovoltaics, and it costs substantially more. One federal estimate, from early last year, suggested that electricity from a solar thermal plant cost 81 percent more than power from a photovoltaic facility, once equipment and construction costs were factored in.
BrightSource and other solar thermal developers say the technology has advantages that PV can't match. For example, solar thermal plants can more easily be paired with large-scale energy storage systems, allowing them to keep feeding electricity onto the grid after sunset. The Solana Generating Station that opened in October near Gila Bend, Ariz., uses molten salt to store energy in the form of heat.
Regardless of technology, utility-scale solar developers are under pressure to drum up new business as their current projects near completion. But BrightSource and other solar thermal developers may have a harder time of it, analysts say.
Last spring, the Oakland company canceled one of its planned California projects, dubbed Hidden Hills. And in December, the staff of the California Energy Commission recommended that the agency not approve BrightSource's next proposed power plant, the Palen Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County. The staff cited the plant's potential danger to birds, which can be burned if they fly into the beams of concentrated sunlight.

'There's a path forward'

BrightSource hasn't given up on Palen. "We believe there's a path forward there," said Joe Desmond, the company's vice president of marketing and government affairs. The company built a plant in Coalinga (Fresno County) for a division of Chevron Corp. The plant generates steam to coax more oil out of an old oil field. (Chevron is one of BrightSource's investors.)
"You're seeing tremendous interest in concentrating solar technologies globally," Desmond said. "Wherever you have the need for electricity, for heat and steam, you'll find that (concentrating solar power) has broad applicability."

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