The confused carbon profile of a massive solar power plant

I remember watching a Science Channel special once on unconventional energy production and they featured the Ivanpah solar power facility in California. Located to the southwest of Las Vegas, the plant has covered a massive stretch of the desert with mirrors which can all be rotated to focus the sun’s light on several high towers. They did some fun demos where they directed all of the mirrors on one side toward a single spot and it produced a beam which melted a fireproof construction brick into a molten slab in a matter of seconds. It was pretty cool technology.

On a day to day basis though, it does a much more boring job. The mirrors heat up tanks of water up in the towers, producing steam which drives a set of turbines and produces electricity. In its own way that’s pretty cool too. And for all of you green warriors out there, it has the benefit of being 100% Carbon Clean so it’s saving the world, right? Funny story about that… (

The plant is the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, a behemoth that uses hundreds of thousands of mirrors spread out over more than five square miles of the Mojave Desert. The mirrors all aim at the tops of three 459-foot towers, where the heat boils water in tanks held there, which generates steam to turn the electricity-producing turbines.

But it turns out that Ivanpah isn’t so squeaky clean after all.

According to the Press Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. , Ivanpah emits enough CO2 that it will “be required to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions.”

In its first year, Ivanpah emitted 46,000 metric tons of CO2. That’s about as much as a Frito Lay plant in Bakersfield emits.

So how does a perfectly crafted, 100% solar plant produce CO2? Well, it’s not actually 100% solar. They use natural gas burners to preheat the water before they start up the turbines and those same burners are what provides the heat if it gets cloudy outside or if the sun, you know… goes down at night. And those things happen regularly enough that their CO2 output will still be over the limits that California imposes.

I’m not here to say that Ivanpah is a complete waste of time or that it should be torn down. I still think it’s a very cool idea and they are producing a usable amount of energy. They can manage 392 megawatts at full capacity, which isn’t chopped liver. Of course, it takes up five square miles for all the mirrors to do it. That’s compared to a coal plant like Tyrone Station in Kentucky which takes up less than a mile and has three turbines putting out 75 megawatts each, but since that one is closing due to EPA regulations there’s no need to dwell on it.

The point here is that there’s nothing wrong with a plant like this using natural gas to make up for any lack of sunlight. It makes them more productive. The fact remains that you really need a desert to run an operation like this at anywhere near profitability levels and to produce any significant amount of energy so there’s only so many places you can put them. But they’re great for the spots where they work and nobody really wants that stretch of real estate anyway. So yes… they have a carbon footprint, but that’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Oh, and they also fried more than 3,500 wild birds who flew through the death rays in their first year alone, but… what the heck. At least the birds were precooked when the staff found them.

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