Is 'Ivanpah' Solyndra Times Three?

The average citizen of the US is now familiar with the Solyndra debacle and how the US Department of Energy blew approximately half a billion dollars on the idea to produce photovoltaic cells (PV) using a chemistry of Copper, Indium, Gallium and Selenium.  

Solyndra got clobbered by the simple chemistry of silicon that the Chinese have now deployed in a massive fashion and drove down the cost of PV electric power generation. Just last week, another US DOE PV company announced they will fold. They are Abound Solar, and they were to use Cadmium and Tellurium chemistry for their PV cells. Approximately 0.1 billion dollars of tax payers’ money was wasted on Abound.

Not well known to the average American is a project for solar thermal energy in the Mojave Desert owned by BrightSource Energy. The project is located at Ivanpah, California on land owned by the federal government.

Interestingly, the above press release about the Ivanpah project being named project of the year includes NRG Energy, Google, BrightSource, and Bechtel. Southern California Edison (SCE) has agreed to purchase the power from Ivanpah under a twenty year power purchase agreement (PPA).

The Ex-Chairman of the Board of BrightSource is a Mr. Bryson who left BrightSource to become the 37th US Secretary of Commerce on October 21, 2011.

Mr. Bryson resigned his post as Commerce Secretary on June 21, 2012 after being involved in two mysterious hit and run auto accidents on Saturday June 9, 2012.  

Interestingly, on June 8, 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that Republicans in the US House of Representatives were broadening the investigation into DOE loans to BrightSource and were also investigating how Mr. Bryson was vetted for the post of Commerce Secretary.

This is all bloody interesting, but the Green Machine is worried that Ivanpah is equal to Solyndra Times Three. My reasoning is that the 392 megawatt (nominally 400 megawatt) power station will cost 3 billion dollars to build, per the press release of Southern California Edison. Note SCE refuses to publish the terms of the PPA.

Had Southern California Edison deployed 400 megawatts of Chinese silicon solar cells, the fully installed project would have only cost between 1.0 and 1.2 billion dollars for the same quantity of dispatchable electric power. BrightSource makes the claim that their solar thermal system can tolerate passing clouds while PV systems see a drop in output when the cloud passes. I am not a meteorologist and have no clue how often clouds pass by Ivanpah, California -- in the middle of the Mojave -- but will I add an extra 0.2 billion dollars for 20% extra PV cells to kick in when the occasional cloud passes by the solar farm. Note I am not saying the PV farm is a good investment, either, as combined cycle power generation would have been the best investment for SCE’s customers. I am just saying that the PV farm is a far better investment than the solar thermal technology BrightSource promoted.

On this basis, the higher cost figure of the PV solar farm might be 1.4 billion dollars, which is 1.6 billion dollars less than the BrightSource project. I have no doubt that maintenance costs and labor costs for the BrightSource solar energy farm that uses a solar thermal boiler and turbine will be higher than the PV farm, but I will ignore these added operating costs in my analysis. What is no doubt is that the extra $1.6 billion is simply wasted investment and that customers of Southern California Edison will pay NRG Energy, Google, BrightSource, and Bechtel a rate of return on this massive yet unneeded investment in what is simply the wrong technology to generate utility-scale solar energy. 

The level of wasted investment in Ivanpah is three times the amount of wasted tax payer money we gave to Solyndra. That is why Ivanpah equals Solyndra times three.

The US DOE also gave BrightSource a $1.6 billion loan guarantee. Dr. Chu, the Nobel Laureate, simply and wrongly bet against the silicon PV technology that the folks in Beijing without Nobel Prizes correctly understood. I understand NRG Energy, Google, BrightSource, and Bechtel are in the business of making money, but Dr. Chu should be in the business of protecting taxpayers’ money from sheer waste.

Unfortunately, Chu does not own a car and will not cause hit and run auto accidents, so for him to lose this position, the Administration would have to fire him for poor job performance -- unlikely, as he's doing exactly what Obama wants.


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