The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is a very large solar thermal power facility. And by “very large,” I mean very large. In fact, it is so enormous it’s hard to even wrap your mind around how large it is. It also cost about 2.2 billion dollars, which is quite a lot of money. A reasonably sized nuclear power plant could be built for the same cost. In the US, this would be difficult, given the regulatory costs, but other countries have built modern Generation III+ reactors for two billion dollars per unit or less.
Of course, that’s just the capital cost. It’s harder to pin down the operational cost. As many will point out, it doesn’t use any fuel in the conventional sense. But it does employ 86 full time workers, plus an even larger number of contractors. It also has a lot of sensitive equipment baking in the sun, which is likely to need frequent replacement. It’s hard to know exactly what it costs to operate the plant and what the cost per kilowatt hour comes out to be, because the operators have kept much of the relevant financial data confidential.
What is known is that the agreed price per wholesale kilowatt hour is “at or below” 12.5 cents per kwh, before time and demand adjustments. That would seem to imply it is more expensive than other methods of power generation. Published data indicates the cost of operating a solar thermal power plant is more than 2.5 times that of a coal or nuclear facility. The Ivanpah facility may benefit from economics of scale to bring that down a bit, but it’s still clear that the plant has a much higher cost per megawatt-hour than a fossil fuel power station.
None the less, plants like Ivanpah are financially viable, at least for the time being. They receive massive tax credits and other
But in terms of power output, it’s not actually that big…
The total nameplate capacity of the Ivanpah facility is anticipated to be 377 megawatts, when complete. That’s not small, but it’s not really that large either. In utility terms, if it were a standard thermal power plant, it would be considered medium sized. By comparison, a modern nuclear facility with two generation III+ reactors might have an output of between 2.5 and 3.5 gigawatts. Large coal and gas plants can be equally large and occasionally larger.
377 megawatts, however, would be enough to power the New York City subway system, but not during rush hour. It would power a medium sized aluminum smelter. It would not be enough to power a city of any size, but could provide the power used by a medium sized town on a summer day.
Of course, 377 MW is the anticipated nameplate capacity of the plant. The capacity factor is only about 30%, meaning that the plant could be thought of as the equivalent of a continuously operating base-load power plant that produces about 110-120 megawatts. Most nuclear and coal plants operate at near full capacity most of the time. There are also many hydroelectric plants that crank out a continuous 120 megawatts night and day.
In utility terms, that’s hardly a lot of power. It’s more than enough to power everything in many homes, but a power plant with this capacity would not be considered very large at all. It’s more in line with the kind of “distributed” power plants that might be used to provide local peaking and load-following. It’s less power than a large ship produces. Even a single 747 can produce more power when cruising. It is, however, enough to power a few dozen small to medium sized locomotives.
So it is not tiny but not that big, and comes at a huge financial cost.
But there is another cost, not as obvious but a bit more dramatic:
The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility has killed quite a few birds. Other things kill birds too, of course. Wind turbines are notorious for killing birds. Birds also fly into radio towers and they strike large glass paned windows. But the the Ivanpah facility kills birds in a uniquely dramatic, even disturbing way.
Via Desert Sun:
Birds going up in smoke at Ivanpah solar project
A new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has labeled BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project a “mega-trap” for insects and birds that may get singed or in some cases, burned alive flying through the intense solar radiation reflecting off the thousands of mirrors surrounding three solar towers at the plant in eastern San Bernardino County.
The Center for Biological Diversity posted the report to the California Energy Commission website on Monday as part of its testimony opposing BrightSource’s 500-megawatt Palen project, located east of the Coachella Valley, which would use similar technology — soaring solar towers surrounded by thousands of reflecting mirrors.
Read the report
“Although not analyzed in detail, there was also significant bat and insect mortality at the Ivanpah site, including monarch butterflies,” the report said. “It appears that Ivanpah may act as a ‘mega-trap,’ (original emphasis) attracting insect-eating birds, which are incapacitated by solar flux injury, thus attracting predators and creating an entire food chain vulnerable to injury and death.”
Solar flux is the intense radiation coming off the reflecting mirrors. At Ivanpah, the radiation is so intense it creates what look like small clouds around the boilers at the top of the project’s three 459-foot-tall solar towers. These clouds appear to be attracting the insects which in turn attract the birds.
“Ivanpah employees and OLE staff noticed that close to the periphery of the tower and within the reflected solar field area, streams of smoke arise when an object crosses the solar flux fields aimed at the tower. Ivanpah employees use the term ‘streamers’ to characterize this occurrence.
“When OLE staff visited the Ivanpah Solar plant, we observed many streamer events. It is claimed that these events represent the combustion of loose debris, or insects. Although some of the events are likely that, there were instances in which the amount of smoke produced by the ignition could only be explained by a larger flammable biomass such as a bird. Indeed, OLE staff observed birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently becoming a streamer.
“OLE staff observed an average of one streamer event every two minutes. It appeared that the streamer events occurred more frequently within the ‘cloud’ area adjacent to the tower. Therefore we hypothesize that the ‘cloud’ has a very high temperature that is igniting all material that traverses its field.”
The birds really don’t seem to stand a chance. The intensity of the concentrated beam of light is so great that they actually burst into flames as soon as they enter it. It’s reported to be a very dramatic (and frequent) site.
Exactly how many birds have been killed by the facility is more difficult to determine than it might seem. The report from the Fish and Wildlife Service cited 71 charred bird carcasses found on site. It is, however, a very large area, and it’s certainly not unreasonable to suppose many were not found, especially if they were severely burned and decomposed. It has also been observed that not all birds are killed by the beams. Some may enter in an area of lower flux or at a time of day when the sun is not as intense. In these cases, the birds would be severely injured, but not incinerated, and could leave the area before dying of the injuries.
So while it is currently difficult to give any solid numbers, what can be said is that this does not appear to be an uncommon event. In fact, based on what workers have been seeing, it happens many times per day.
It is just another example of a “green and environmentally friendly” power generating technology having an embarrassing flaw.
On whether the bird deaths are “worth it:”
Whether or not burning a few birds is a worthwhile sacrifice is a complex question. Nearly all human development has some environmental costs. Thermal power plants routinely kill fish larva and birds lose their lives as a result of skyscrapers, antenna masts and large glass curtain windows.
The Ivanpah Solar Plant has other impacts to the local environment. Its construction led to a loss of habitat for a number of threatened or endangered species, most notably the desert tortoise. It also is a major consumer of local water resources, despite using a cooling system that is primarily air-based and thus uses less water than alternative cooling methods. This also does not include the total environmental impact of things like replacement parts, energy expended in transporting workers to work and the cost of eventually decommissioning the plant. At present, there is little good data on the full life-cycle impacts of the plant.
At least in my opinion, the death of some birds might well be a worthy sacrifice IF the plant actually generated very large amounts of reliable energy and did so with good economics. It doesn’t. Thus, any added costs simply makes an already bad deal even worse. So while nuclear plants may kill plankton and fish larva and hydroelectric facilities impact fish and aquatic life, those impacts are generally a small price to pay for the energy produced. Here, you are getting much less than what you pay for.