by Julie Tisdale
City & County Policy Analyst
Add this to the annals of unsurprising failures, both as regards solar energy and government incentives.
According to the AP, a massive solar plant that uses cutting edge technology and promised huge electricity production, isn’t producing anywhere close to the amount of electricity predicted. And, oh yeah, it also got government help to get up and running – $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees.
If not for all that money, it would be almost comical. Why the lower-than-expected electricity production? Well, most importantly, the sun hasn’t been shining as much as expected. This is the desert. Yes, weather is unpredictable, but if you can’t get enough sun in the Mohave desert to make a solar plant work, then it seems unlikely you’re going to be able to make it work anywhere. Which is what we at the Locker Room blog have been saying forever. Solar isn’t bad; it’s just unreliable, which limits its potential as a significant power source.
And then there’s all that money. The plant is owned by NRG Energy, BrightSource Energy, and Google. Do we really want to be using taxpayer dollars to extend $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees to huge companies? If these companies think the project is likely to work well enough to turn a profit, they have the resources to invest. Sure, it’s risky, but that’s the whole point. When companies have to invest their own resources without loan guarantees from the government, then they have to really evaluate what are the chances of success. That helps to weed out bad projects.
And this appears to be just such a bad project.
And the final irony is this. The technology here isn’t the sort of solar panels you’re used to. No, this uses giant mirrors to reflect sunlight up to giant boilers, which create steam that drives turbines. Since the sun hasn’t been shining enough, the plant has had to use something else to fire the boilers.
Operators initially expected to need steam from gas-powered boilers for an hour a day during startup. After operations began, they found they needed to keep boilers running more than four times longer – an average of 4 1/2 hours a day.
State energy regulators in August approved the plant’s request to increase the natural gas it is allowed to burn by 60 percent.
Additional natural gas could also be needed to operate boilers when clouds thicken or to maintain output at the end of the day and extend the capability for power production, the company said.
“Because the plant requires sunlight to heat water and turn it to steam, anything that reduces the sunlight will affect steam conditions, which could damage equipment and potentially cause unsafe conditions,” said the commission, which approved the request for increased gas use.
[Executive director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Dr. Neil] Fromer said it was surprising that so much additional gas is needed, adding that it “signals to me they have some very large problems that they are going to need to sort out.”