- Just recently, the world’s largest solar thermal electric plant started operating three of its generating units.
- The Ivanpah solar energy project (in Nevada, US), developed by BrightSource Energy and operated by NRG Solar, is the largest of its kind.
- Solar thermal power plants generate electricity indirectly: Heat from the sun’s rays is collected by sun-facing mirrors (called heliostats) and used to heat a fluid. The steam produced from the heated fluid powers a generator that produces electricity.
- Since the official launch of the power plant, the project has been extensively discussed in various media. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Reuters all discuss reasons why Ivanpah is the first of its kind, and may be also the last.
- Garrett Hering from Greenbiz did a great job summing up the objections one could have to the project. Here are 3 reasons why Ivanpah might be a one hit wonder.
1. Burned birds and other ecological impacts
- Land & Water: Ivanpah requires a huge amount of land (3,500 Acres). Although the plant uses air-cooled condensers to reduce water usage by 95% (compared to wet-cooled solar thermal plants), Ivanpah still uses a significant volume of groundwater to wash the project’s 347,000 mirrors regularly. The project developer however claims that a nearby golf course still uses more water than Ivanpah.
- Wildlife: Desert tortoises had to be emerged. But the plant is recently in the news bacause birds dying, when flying through the concentrated solar flux, burning feathers and beaks, or crashing into mirrors.
2. No energy storage
- Two other, rather large, solar thermal energy plants included energy storage in their project. Both Abengoa’s 280 MW Solana Station (Arizona) and SolarReserve’s 110 MW Crescent Dunes project (Nevada) store concentrated solar radiation in molten salts. This way, the project can deliver energy during evening peak hours, which delivers additional value.
- Recognizing the economic and reliability benefits of solar thermal energy storage, Ivanpah’s developer (BrightSource) has added storage in subsequent proposals for projects.
3. Price competition: PV cheaper than solar thermal
- Ivanpah’s contract price is “at or below” 12.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. While this was (probably) cheaper than utility-scale PV projects when the contracts were signed (in 2008), this is no longer the case.
- The average price for utility-scale PV dropped from about 21 cents/kWh in 2008 to 11 cents/kWh in 2013, and some contracted prices even known to be at 7 cents.
- Given the fact that PV already achieved about 10 times the scale of solar thermal in terms of total deployment, and that price reduction in PV seems to be accelerating, it will be difficult for solar thermal to win the race.