No, The Ivanpah Solar Power Plant is Not a Failure--Calm Down.
Chances are you’ve already heard this week’s news about the Ivanpah Solar Power Project and its less-than-stellar, worse than expected performance.
Tongues were sharp as the media offered its take on the project’s shortcomings, with some equating major investors Google, NRG Energy and BrightSource’s application for a $539 million federal loan to help repay the $1.6 billion federal grant funding the project to a “bailout”—a word forever tainted in the American lexicon by the 2008 financial crisis.
"This is an attempt by very large cash generating companies that have billions on their balance sheet to get a federal bailout, i.e. a bailout from us–the taxpayer–for their pet project," Reason Foundation VP of Research Julian Morris told Fox News. "It's actually rather obscene."
Some took issue with the technology present in the project, saying photovoltaic panels and even nuclear energy are more efficient than Ivanpah’s unique thermal solar system.
In his article “Thermal Solar Energy -- Some Technologies Really Are Dumb,” Forbes contributor James Conca expressed his particular distaste for the technology in place at Ivanpah. He believes the thermal solar system costs far too much for such a minute return.
More egregious to Conca is the private sector’s plea for help from the federal government because of thermal solar’s perceived failings, writing that he’s “not sure why these billion-dollar companies need our help paying off a loan of that size.” However, Conca was clear in saying that it wasn’t the loan itself he was unhappy with, citing its purpose as allowing for testing of new technologies such as Ivanpah’s.
“What I don’t like is additional bailouts at our expense,” he explained. “Google, NRG and BrightSource are billion-dollar companies that need to feel their own pain so they don’t build another one of these things. That’s how it’s supposed to work. If we feel the pain for them, they won’t learn.”
Sure, there’s a sticky financial situation these companies find themselves in, but the answer as to why the plant isn’t performing couldn’t be any simpler.
“Factors such as clouds, jet contrails and weather have had a greater impact on the plant than the owners anticipated,” the California Energy Commission said in a statement.
In other words? It’s just not sunny enough.
While Google and NRG were mostly silent on the subject, the third major investor, BrightSource–whose technology largely powers the plant–was quite open about the past and present struggles of Ivanpah.
“As with any new plant, there have been some equipment challenges which impacted plant availability, although we have seen a consistent improvement in performance since the plant went on-line earlier this year,” the company said. “Since the early planning stages of this one-of-a-kind project, we knew there might be some growing pains along the way, but through continued learnings and our ongoing improvement process, the units are performing better than some of our initial assumptions.”
Bad weather and untested tech do not for a good power plant make. Couple that with the project’s increased reliance on natural gas and alleged flash-frying of birds and you’re left with what looks like a big, unfortunate, solar-powered mess.
Realistically, though, is that the case?
In her article “Earth to BrightSource: Give Up, The Media Will Never Get Ivanpah Right,” Tina Casey calls all of these claims crafty spin-doctoring on the part of the anti-renewables media.
“Apparently, Fox characterized the payoff process as a ‘bailout’ in the form of a federal grant,” she writes. “Ivanpah qualifies for a 30% Investment Tax Credit now that it’s operating, and the terms of its loan guarantee require it to use those proceeds to pay down the loan. But, bailout sounds a lot sexier, so how are the story editors supposed to resist that?”
Casey goes on to point out the long-term nature of the project and the unrealistic expectation that a plant based on new, large-scale tech would be at 100 percent operating capacity immediately. She’s not thrilled about the use of natural gas, however.
“Perhaps someday in the sparkling green future Ivanpah will wake up every morning to the tune of renewable biogas from a landfill or a dairy farm or whatever,” she mused, “but in the meantime fossil gas it is.”
What it all comes down to is this: is Ivanpah a failure?
A Sunny Blunder?
The short answer is no, at least not yet.
The Department of Energy loan funding Ivanpah is designed for projects that utilize technologies that are past the experiment stage, but remain untested on a commercial scale. And as NRG spokesman Jeff Holland explained, the four-year ramp-up period for the project was disclosed publicly beforehand and is even outlined in the agreements the plant has with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric.
To call a project dead or failed not even a quarter of the way into its ramp-up period would be rash and shortsighted.
However, the solution for Ivanpah is more complex than just, “It needs to be sunnier!” While the generating potential of the tech is not quite up to snuff, the greatest opportunity for Ivanpah would be the integration of energy storage. That way, the plant could store energy when it’s sunny and use it when it’s not.
Overall, Brightsource remains confident as it looks overseas for more business, still insisting the project will produce energy enough to be competitive here at home.
“We remain confident that over time the sun at Ivanpah will be more than sufficient for the plant to meet its expected performance targets,” the company’s statement said.
Right now, the project’s ultimate future is rather uncertain, though the parties involved–especially Brightsource–seem optimistic. To call it a failure now would be like landing a plane before it even gets off the ground.
UK must stop blundering into high carbon choices warns CCC
The UK Government must end a year of climate contradictions and stop blundering on high carbon choices, according to the Climate Change Committee as it released 200 policy recommendations in a progress to Parliament update.
While the rigour of the Climate Change Act helped bring COP26 to the UK, it is not enough for Ministers to point to the Glasgow summit and hope that this will carry the day with the public, the Committee warns. Leadership is required, detail on the steps the UK will take in the coming years, clarity on tax changes and public spending commitments, as well as active engagement with people and businesses across the country.
"It it is hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the last 12 months. There are gaps and ambiguities. Climate resilience remains a second-order issue, if it is considered at all. We continue to blunder into high-carbon choices. Our Planning system and other fundamental structures have not been recast to meet our legal and international climate commitments," the update states. "Our message to Government is simple: act quickly – be bold and decisive."
The UK’s record to date is strong in parts, but it has fallen behind on adapting to the changing climate and not yet provided a coherent plan to reduce emissions in the critical decade ahead, according to the Committee.
- Statutory framework for climate The UK has a strong climate framework under the Climate Change Act (2008), with legally-binding emissions targets, a process to integrate climate risks into policy, and a central role for independent evidence-based advice and monitoring. This model has inspired similarclimate legislation across the world.
- Emissions targets The UK has adopted ambitious territorial emissions targets aligned to the Paris Agreement: the Sixth Carbon Budget requires an emissions reduction of 63% from 2019 to 2035, on the way to Net Zero by 2050. These are comprehensive targets covering all greenhouse gases and all sectors, including international aviation and shipping.
- Emissions reduction The UK has a leading record in reducing its own emissions: down by 40% from 1990 to 2019, the largest reduction in the G20, while growing the economy (GDP increased by 78% from 1990 to 2019). The rate of reductions since 2012 (of around 20 MtCO2e annually) is comparable to that needed in the future.
- Climate Risk and Adaptation The UK has undertaken three comprehensive assessments of the climate risks it faces, and the Government has published plans for adapting to those risks. There have been some actions in response, notably in tackling flooding and water scarcity, but overall progress in planning and delivering adaptation is not keeping up with increasing risk. The UK is less prepared for the changing climate now than it was when the previous risk assessment was published five years ago.
- Climate finance The UK has been a strong contributor to international climate finance, having recently doubled its commitment to £11.6 billion in aggregate over 2021/22 to 2025/26. This spend is split between support for cutting emissions and support for adaptation, which is important given significant underfunding of adaptation globally. However, recent cuts to the UK’s overseas aid are undermining these commitments.
In a separate comment, it said the Prime Minister’s Ten-Point Plan was an important statement of ambition, but it has yet to be backed with firm policies.
Baroness Brown, Chair of the Adaptation Committee said: “The UK is leading in diagnosis but lagging in policy and action. This cannot be put off further. We cannot deliver Net Zero without serious action on adaptation. We need action now, followed by a National Adaptation Programme that must be more ambitious; more comprehensive; and better focussed on implementation than its predecessors, to improve national resilience to climate change.”
Priority recommendations for 2021 include setting out capacity and usage requirements for Energy from Waste consistent with plans to improve recycling and waste prevention, and issue guidance to align local authority waste contracts and planning policy to these targets; develop (with DIT) the option of applying either border carbon tariffs or minimum standards to imports of selected embedded-emission-intense industrial and agricultural products and fuels; and implement a public engagement programme about national adaptation objectives, acceptable levels of risk, desired resilience standards, how to address inequalities, and responsibilities across society.
Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner said the report is another reminder that if the UK is to meet its ambitious climate targets there is an urgent need to scale up bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
"As the world’s leading generator and supplier of sustainable bioenergy there is no better place to deliver BECCS at scale than at Drax in the UK. We are ready to invest in and deliver this world-leading green technology, which would support clean growth in the north of England, create tens of thousands of jobs and put the UK at the forefront of combatting climate change."
Drax Group is kickstarting the planning process to build a new underground pumped hydro storage power station – more than doubling the electricity generating capacity at its iconic Cruachan facility in Scotland. The 600MW power station will be located inside Ben Cruachan – Argyll’s highest mountain – and increase the site’s total capacity to 1.04GW (click here).
Lockdown measures led to a record decrease in UK emissions in 2020 of 13% from the previous year. The largest falls were in aviation (-60%), shipping (-24%) and surface transport (-18%). While some of this change could persist (e.g. business travellers accounted for 15-25% of UK air passengers before the pandemic), much is already rebounding with HGV and van travel back to pre-pandemic levels, while car use, which at one point was down by two-thirds, only 20% below pre-pandemic levels.