In February of 2014, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz joined a host of other dignitaries in the Mojave Desert to dedicate California’s Ivanpah solar plant. Billed at the time as the world’s largest solar power facility, the plant uses concentrated solar technology, also known as solar thermal technology, to harness the sun’s energy.
Unlike the more familiar solar photovoltaic panels most people have become accustomed to seeing, concentrated solar works more like a conventional steam power plant. Instead of using fossil fuels or controlled nuclear reactions to convert water into steam, concentrated solar uses mirrors that focus the sun’s energy on a water source, creating steam that powers turbines.
The Ivanpah facility was no small feat. The plant covers five square miles, uses three 450-foot towers to trap sunlight focused from an array of mirrors, and cost $2.2 billion to build, including a federal loan guarantee of $1.6 billion. A joint venture of NRG Energy, Google, and Brightsource Energy, the state-of-the-art plant was supposed to produce a net of 392 megawatts of electricity, enough power to supply 140,000 homes. That what’s was supposed to happen.
The reality has been that Ivanpah was a real disappointment in terms of its actual electrical output. It also may have caused more environmental problems than it solved.
For starters, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) signed a contract to buy electricity from Ivanpah, but the facility failed to produce enough electricity to fulfill its obligations to PG&E. This put California regulators in a tough spot, especially given the fact that customers of PG&E pay about $200 per megawatt hour for electricity generated by Ivanpah, making it some of the nation’s most expensive electricity. Over the objections of consumer groups who believe that PG&E should either walk away from its Ivanpah contract or negotiate a better rate, California regulators last week decided to allow the Ivanpah solar plant another year to work out its problems.
How badly did Ivanpah fail to meet expectations? According to its contract with PG&E, the plant was expected to produce one million megawatt-hours of electricity per year, with at least 70 percent of that amount being guaranteed in the first two years, rising to 80 percent afterwards. In its first year, Ivanpah produced failed to generate even half of its expected output.
One would think that a solar power facility with reduced output would at least be environmentally friendly. Not exactly though. Since it opened two years ago, Ivanpah has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of birds, most which are scorched to death while flying through the super-heated air surrounding the plant. Construction of the plant also involved the attempted relocation of the local population of endangered tortoises, several of which were killed in the process.
“Everybody knows that translocation doesn’t work,” remarked an unnamed biologist hired to try to protect the tortoises. “When you’re walking in front of a bulldozer, crying, and moving animals and cacti out of the way, it’s hard to think that the project is a good idea.”
You would think that a project with such a spotty record on both performance and conservation might draw the ire of groups like the Sierra Club. You would be mistaken though. Prior to its construction, the national leadership of the Sierra Club decided to take no position on Ivanpah. That neutrality angered many of the organization’s members, including this unhappy writer, who believed that the group should take a more active role in protecting the desert ecosystem where Ivanpah is located.
There is also no evidence that national officials from the Sierra Club have issued any statement to date about the mounting evidence of Ivanpah’s bad record. I checked the group’s website and found nothing. Why is Sierra Club so eerily quiet about the failure of a major solar plant? A cynical person might suspect the club’s position is connected to its financial relationship with the solar industry. The Sierra Club is actively funneling its members toward for-profit solar rooftop companies, receiving a $750 finders fee for each member that ‘goes solar.’
That type of hypocrisy should surprise no one who follows the Sierra Club’s energy policies. We are reminded of the time nearly three years ago when PACE exposed the Sierra Club for taking contradictory positions on natural gas, hoping observers wouldn’t notice that their message in Mississippi was the opposite of what they were telling Florida officials. Meanwhile, after being heavily critical of difficulties at a coal gasification plant in Kemper County, Mississippi, the Sierra Club now is silent about a state-of-the-art solar project whose operation has also met with adversity. It is a double standard that should give policy makers pause when contemplating the sincerity of the Sierra Club’s positions.
In the end, no one should be happy when a project as large as Ivanpah experiences major problems. First, there is simply too much money at stake, much of it backed by federal taxpayers. But second, and maybe more important, we need all solutions on the table when it comes to meeting future demand for electricity. Those solutions include cutting-edge projects like Ivanpah, but they also include high-tech fossil fuel projects like the Kemper plant. Groups that deny that truth, ones like the Sierra Club that turn a blind eye to the developments at Ivanpah, clearly have an agenda other than the advancement of sound energy policy that works for all customers.