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Summary:

This is what it feels like inside Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar thermal farm under construction. We drive along the solar mirror fields, take an elevator to the top of one of the 450-foot towers, and peek inside the assembly building at.

The boiler at Ivanpah 1.

The massive solar thermal farm Ivanpah, in the Mojave desert, is half way through completed, and on a recent trip to the site, we grabbed a dozen or so video clips. Check out our lil’ hand-shot movie, which shows off scenes from the top of tower 1, inside the mirror assembly buidings, and driving amongst the mirror-filled fields.

  1. I visited one of these power plants in South of France and smaller than the ones in the article but still impressive.

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  2. Katie, will eliminating PV solar cells give the system a higher power conversion efficiency than PV solar cell farms?

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    1. Also, how does the thermal energy storage work?

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    2. The system doesn’t use photovoltaic cells, it’s entirely solar thermal. So the sun’s rays are concentrated onto the top of the tower, where a boiler sits, and that boiler turns water into steam, which then is used to create electricity. In contrast for a solar concentrating PV system, the sunlight is concentrated onto PV cells.

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      1. Okay but I was asking about the *efficiency* of the total system, from sunlight input to electricity output, as compared to the efficiency of a system that uses PV cells. Which type of system wastes less energy from input to output?

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    3. Rich,

      The Ivanpah system will convert about 16% of the solar energy that hits its heliostats in a year to AC electric energy. This is about the same annual solar to electric efficiency you could get with the best crystalline PV solar panels but at a far higher installed cost. – $5.9/Watt vs. < $3/Watt for the PV and that's being kind. The energy from the Ivanpah project sells for about $125/MWh in it's first year and escalates from there. By comparison, utility scale PV projects that can sell their energy at first year prices below $90/MWh are a dime a dozen these days. As impressive as Ivanpah is it is a bad deal for ratepayers…. The technology is also a bad deal for taxpayers as it needs hefty DOE Loan Guarantees to get these and future plants built. If anything goes wrong we taxpayers will be on the hook for any project that can't service its debt on its own.

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  3. Eric Knudstrup Saturday, August 11, 2012

    We have thousands of empty roof tops in the cities at “point of use” and we have to mess with the desert too?

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    1. Who is going to pay for placing solar panels on those thousands of empty roof tops?

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    2. The desert is one of the only places that has this much land — 3,500 acres — available for building something like this. It’s only becoming more economical to compete with fossil fuel power at such a large scale.

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  4. Thanks for this, terrific inside view of this landmark solar power project. Will you return to the site for a follow-up report once the plants start producing electricity? More importantly (for me) are there plans for the general public to visit and tour once all of the construction is finished?

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  5. And how many combined cycle gas turbines could be built without taxpayer money for $2 billion dollars? There’s some just a few miles away in Primm right now. They run day, night, or cloudy without a problem.

    How many desert tortoises have died for this project?

    Isn’t BrightSource having financial problems?

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    1. Re-gas turbines. The point is to create carbon emissions-free power. California utilities have a state mandate to produce 33% of their power from clean sources by 2020.
      On the desert tortoises, BrightSource’s official line is that they’re at a net positive, because they created a hatchery at the relocation area and the number of tortoises hatched out weighs the amount that they estimated have died. I havent done any recent reporting on this, so not sure how many have died. The latest survey on the site thought there were anywhere from 86 to 162 adults living in the 3,600 acre living area, and BrightSource attempted to move them all.
      Finally, on your financial question — at this point they aren’t bringing in a ton of revenues — Ivanpah is there first commercial scale plant. They also decided not to IPO, because they decided they could get better terms raising money from the private markets. But they are actually doing better than a lot of solar and clean power companies these days.

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      1. Answer the OP’s question. $2B would build about 2000 MWe worth of gas turbine combined cycle power plants. 5X more name plate capacity than Ivanpah at far higher capacity factor and with reduced CO2 emissions (40% less than coal). The proper goal for our country is reduced CO2 emissions by the lowest cost means available. The CA RPS is a bad idea that is going to burn ratepayers who already have among the highest retail energy rates in the USA.

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    2. Your concern for desert tortoises is breathtaking

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  6. Trevor James Edmonds Tuesday, August 14, 2012

    What happens if you take the elevator to the top of one of the concentrator towers when all the mirrors are powered up?? EEEK!

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    1. The Bechtel guys said you could actually go in there when its lit up. It’s hot, like 110 degrees or something, but maintenance crews can walk in and out.

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      1. Solar Stakeholder Monday, August 27, 2012

        From the pic attached:
        The “white wall” looking things are the protection panels. Basically protecting anything you don’t want the suns rays to heat up. The black walls are the boiler panels. Those we do want to heat up. Even now, without it operational, they heat up pretty good.. :)

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  7. Lorin Vant-Hull Monday, August 27, 2012

    Sure, there is a lot of frackable natural gas out there, say 200 years at present rate of use. Suppose we start to replace coal plants with natural gs, so the usage rate of nat. gas goes up 10 fold. Whoops, the natural gas will run out before the plants life is up. So we have a lot of stranded gas plants to pay for.
    Also, while BrightSource is not using thermal storage in this first set of plants, they will in the next set. This will turn the sun following plants into load followers, allow them to receive peaking prices and capacity credit, and make the resource several times as valuable to the utilities, who have to keep your lights on day or night. PV cant do that. Batteries are just too expensive and difficult. A similar plant in Spain has thermal storage for 15 hours of sun free operation. It has operated continuously for several days at a time, and routinely operates in a peaking mode, to meet Spain’s demand curve which peaks from noon to 10 PM.

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  8. Hello Katie
    How do Bright Sours going to clean all the dust from the heliostats ? ( 60.000 x 3 )
    What will be the the cleaning saycle for each heliostat ?
    Yaron

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  9. Re: The cost. It is a fair criticism. But by focusing on the upfront cost the woods are being missed for the trees. What truly matters is the levelized cost of electricity or LCOE.

    What should be pointed out is that Ivanpah is a demonstration project for the technology. It is not correctly sized, larger is better and all the tooling and technology had to be developed from scratch increasing the unit cost. The LCOE for Ivanpah is $ 0.14/kw.

    The next iteration at Hidden hills/Rio mesa will be closer to grid parity at 250 MW per tower, (Bigger, only 2 towers, etc) to provide a LCOE of $0.10/kw. Eventually by 2020 single towers of 400 MW to 500 MW can get close to grid parity at $0.08/kw. Ivanpah is just a step along the way.

    WRT Natural gas the LCOE right now at rock bottom prices are $0.06 to $0.08 per kw. It should be pointed out that shale gas is inherently expensive and is only profitable when prices are roughly double to triple that at present.

    Also it should be pointed out that Ivanpah is not intended to replace existing power. These CSP projects are intended to take up ALL future demand growth in California. At present demand grows at 0.5%-1.0% annually or about 400MW-500MW annually. Can you see why Ivanpah is sized the way it is?

    Now all this may still fail but at least give folks credit for approaching this with some wisdom.

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