Ivanpah Solar Plant Underproducing — Badly

Ivanpah Solar Plant Underproducing — Badly

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert, lauded by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at its opening last February, is having problems matching the initial boasts of how much electricity it would produce. 

Given a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee, the plant only produced 254,263 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity from last January through August, and in the following four months, only 189,156 MWh. As reported by Greentechmedia, original estimates asserted that there would be over 1 million MWh produced yearly, but based on how much was produced in the first eight months of 2014, only 600,000 MWh would be produced. 

In March, the plant’s owners, NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource, asked for approval from California regulators to use 60% more natural gas in their auxiliary boilers than the plant’s certification had specified. They asserted that “more boiler steam would be needed than previously expected in order to operate the system efficiently and in a manner that protects plant equipment, and to maximize solar electricity generation… auxiliary boilers typically need to operate an average of approximately 4.5 hours a day during startup (an increase from 1 hour daily average originally expected.” 

NRG would not answer questions about the plant’s performance, but BrightSource stated that “weather at Ivanpah since February has generally been worse than expected, resulting in reduced output.” The company added that the sheer size of the plant was a reason it hadn’t performed as well as expected. The largest power tower plant in the world built before Ivanpah was in Spain, and could only generate 20 MW. 

The original certification for the plant stated that “total annual natural gas fuel heat input” was not to exceed “5 percent of the total annual heat input from the sun” for each of the three Ivanpah units, but that standard has been changed; BrightSource is now allowed to burn 1,575 million standard cubic feet of natural gas yearly. 

At the end of September, the Platts trade newsletter Megawatt Daily reported that the owners of Ivanpah were looking for extensions on repaying their loans. The Wall Street Journal reported that the owners were reportedly waiting for a cash grant from the U.S. Treasury that was worth 30 percent of the cost of Ivanpah. That grant was made possible because of an Obama stimulus provision: the 1603 program.


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