The world’s largest-ever solar thermal plant opens in California, courtesy of the Obama DOE

posted at 1:21 pm on February 14, 2014 by Erika Johnsen

On Thursday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was in sunny California at the picture-perfect ribbon-cutting ceremony for the brand-new Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, an exemplar of what we’re told is cutting-edge solar technology and the lucky recipient of a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee (note: the total cost of the project is $2.2 billion). As the WSJ report notes, however, the first-of-its-kind solar plant may be among the last:

The $2.2 billion solar farm, which spans over five square miles of federal land southwest of Las Vegas, includes three towers as tall as 40-story buildings. Nearly 350,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect sunlight onto boilers atop the towers, creating steam that drives power generators.

The owners of the project— NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy Inc., the company that developed the “tower power” solar technology—call the plant a major feat of engineering that can light up about 140,000 homes a year.

Hey, that sounds pretty sweet, right? So what’s the problem?

Well. For starters — how do we subsidize thee? Let us count the ways:

Ivanpah is among the biggest in a spate of power-plant-sized solar projects that have begun operating in the past two years, spurred in part by a hefty investment tax credit that expires at the end of 2016. Most of them are in California, where state law requires utilities to use renewable sources for a third of the electricity they sell by 2020. …

That makes for expensive power. Experts have estimated that electricity from giant solar projects will cost at least twice as much as electricity from conventional sources. But neither the utilities that have contracted to buy the power nor state regulators have disclosed what the price will be, only that it will be passed on to electricity customers.

Federal loan guarantee? Check. Tax credits? Check. Portfolio standards? Check. And what are consumers, a.k.a. taxpayers, getting for the “investment” that the federal and state governments have so astutely made on their behalf? Higher energy bills, that’s what. The Journal notes that Ivanpah costs about four times as much as a conventional natural gas-fired plant, but will produce far less electricity and take up a lot more land. That’s a sweet deal right there.

But here’s a cherry for the top of this subsidy sundae: BrightSource is thinking about building another tower-based solar plant east of Palm Springs, but California’s Energy Commission recommended in December that the company stick to more conventional solar technologies. Pourquoi?

One reason: the BrightSource system appears to be scorching birds that fly through the intense heat surrounding the towers, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company, which is based in Oakland, Calif., reported finding dozens of dead birds at the Ivanpah plant over the past several months, while workers were testing the plant before it started operating in December. …

Regulators said they anticipated that some birds would be killed once the Ivanpah plant started operating, but that they didn’t expect so many to die during the plant’s construction and testing. The dead birds included a peregrine falcon, a grebe, two hawks, four nighthawks and a variety of warblers and sparrows. State and federal regulators are overseeing a two-year study of the facility’s effects on birds.

Unexpectedly, as ever.

I’ve said this before in regards to similarly subsidized and bird-killing wind farms, and I’ll say it again: As with all economic decisions we make, any energy source we decide to use is going to come with its own particular set of tradeoffs. There are plenty of industrial processes already in place that kill a lot of birds each year, and bird deaths could very well be a reasonable price to pay for solar energy, particularly if it’s putting a remote and requisitely sunny piece of the California desert to good use. The issue, of course, is that solar energy’s other tradeoffs — i.e., relentless taxpayer subsidization and higher prices than other readily available sources — are nowhere near worth the amount of electricity they actually succeed in producing.

I seriously have nothing against solar energy, and indeed, I’d bet that with continued technological innovation, solar energy could eventually be an affordable and practical way to diversify our energy portfolio in certain regions — but the deep government “assistance” that both wind and solar have received for decades now is a decidedly poor way to help them achieve the type of price efficiency that would help get them to that advanced stage, nor is the money diverted from more profitable uses a way to achieve the type of robust economic growth that could help spur along that very type of research and development. It’s a costly and bass-ackwards way to go about things, and a disservice to alternative energy in the long run.

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