(January 30) The largest solar project ever built has gone online in northeast San Bernardino County.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, located fifty miles northwest of Needles and about five miles from the Nevada border, was tied into the state’s power grid last September. After months of system check-outs and final preparations, all three of the plant’s 46-story towers began commercial generation of power on December 30, meeting a corporate-imposed deadline for the system to be operational by the end of 2013.
The project proponent was BrightSource Energy Company, which was responsible for obtaining the permitting. It is now being operated by NRG Solar, Inc. Among the investors in the project were NRG Solar, Google and BrightSource. Bechtel was the contractor on the $2.2 billion project.
Utilizing BrightSource’s LPT solar thermal system consisting of 173,500 heliostats –paired mirrors that track the sun and focus the captured thermal energy onto a 459-foot tall tower – the plant uses that heat to achieve a temperature of 1,000 degrees in a condenser that boils water, creating steam to power a turbine that generates electricity.
The facility will provide power to meet the needs of 140,000 California homes and will be sent via the grid as far as Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The land upon which the project was built is being leased from the federal government. It is a habitat of the endangered desert tortoise, a protected species.
A consortium of environmental groups sued the Interior Department and its Bureau of Land Management to block the Ivanpah plant from being built, contending that the facility’s disruption of the desert landscape would damage the desert tortoise’s habitat on federal land. The Sierra Club, which qualifies as the major environmental group in California, did not join in that lawsuit. While some Sierra Club members were disturbed by the potential harm the plant would do to the tortoise habitat, they were conflicted because the overarching impact of the plant is at one with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which calls for the elimination or reduction in the use of fossil fuels for the provision of energy. .
One percent of the $2.2 billion project’s budget – $22 million – was used to hire biologists, purchase conservation land for the tortoises elsewhere, incorporate protective measures for the reptiles and relocate about 200 of the tortoises captured on the property into pens.
Native American groups also raised objections to the project, maintaining it would disturb sacred grounds in the Ivanpah Valley.
The project was backed by a $1.6 billion federal loan. Sale arrangements for the electricity have already been made with Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. Pacific Gas and Electric, the largest utility in Northern California, has entered into an agreement to purchase roughly two-thirds of the electricity the Ivanpah plant is producing. Southern California Edison will purchase roughly one third of the electricity produced at Ivanpah.
The project will assist those companies in meeting a state mandate that one third of California’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2020.
Protests and objections to the plant on environmental grounds continue to be registered. When the plant was started up for testing last year, a number of birds that flew into the the resultant super-heated plumes of air from the towers and mirrors died. Federal fish and wildlife officials stepped in and began collecting bird carcasses. No shut down order was lodged against the Ivanpah plant but on December13, the California Energy Commission held off on permitting another BrightSource on the basis of the bird deaths demonstrated at Ivanpah.
Environmentalists also protested the use of water to keep the mirrors at the facility clean and the creation of dust by the vehicles during that upkeep. In response NRG is using robotic devices designed by BrightSource, which are outfitted with infrared cameras and are capable of being remotely controlled from the plant’s operations floor, allowing them to be operated at night. The plant was designed so that its boiler tubes are cooled by air flow rather than water, minimizing water usage.
That area of the Mojave Desert, which is notable for three nearby casinos as well as the major highway to Las Vegas, is now distinguished during the day by a vast sea of mirrors and at night by the glow of the tower tops.