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Summary:

The revolutionary solar farm in the Mojave desert is finally live. Here’s the story behind the tech, and an inside look at the launch.

A look at the heliostats and 2 of the 3 towers of Ivanpah. Taken from the 6th floor of the Unit 1 tower.

Less than a hundred miles from the rim of the Hoover Dam, just outside of Las Vegas at the edge of dusty San Bernardino County, sits a symbol of how the sun will some day provide copious amounts of electricity for entire cities. This is Ivanpah, the world’s largest operating solar farm, which uses 347,000 mirrors (173,500 heliostats) and three huge 450-foot towers to harness the sun’s heat to generate electricity.

As of the beginning of this year, it’s a mere symbol no longer. After more than seven years of development, over three years of construction, 2,700 workers, and $1.6 billion in U.S. government loan money, the massive solar farm is finally live and sending enough solar power into the grid to power 140,000 (average American) homes. Ivanpah was officially launched on Thursday with an event that featured U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, David Crane, the CEO of Ivanpah’s majority owner power company NRG Energy, and members of the band The Fray, which filmed a video at Ivanpah and titled their latest album Helios. Oh, and of course, a lot of media people, too.

Ivanpah's heliostats with two towers in background.

Ivanpah’s heliostats with two towers in background, taken Feb. 2014

To the workers, the companies (including Google and startup BrightSource) and the federal and state groups involved in supporting the 5-mile by one-mile long colossal clean power project, Ivanpah is the Hoover Dam for this generation. In fact, Bechtel, which helped build the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, also led the construction of Ivanpah.

More than anything, the facility marks a future of emerging clean power options that can begin to compete with large scale fossil fuel power, but without the associated carbon emissions. Ivanpah is an early example of how next-generation technology, innovation, entrepreneurialism and government support can come together to provide solutions to climate change in a substantial way.

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz

In the beginning

Ivanpah originally began as an idea for the first commercial-scale project from a tiny startup based in Oakland, Calif., and Israel called BrightSource Energy. Founded in 2004 by the original developers of the Luz solar projects, which were built in the Mojave desert in the 1980s and 1990s (the company later went bankrupt), BrightSource emerged as one of the more promising startups out of the Silicon Valley cleantech bubble.

BrightSource was funded early on by the Valley’s VantagePoint Capital Partners, and one of VantagePoint’s team, John Woolard, joined BrightSource as the original CEO. Woolard spent years pushing BrightSource’s technology forward and wading through the regulatory process needed to get projects like Ivanpah (built on public land) permitted. He’s still the chairman, though he handed the CEO reigns to David Ramm in late 2013.

BrightSource former CEO John Woolard

BrightSource former CEO John Woolard in the Summer of 2011

Ivanpah took years longer to get built than expected. It was one of the first projects to be developed on controversial Bureau of Land Management land, and the location ended up having more desert tortoises than originally thought. It’s been an object of much environmental scrutiny and at one point the site employed 160 biologists to try to make sure the handful of tortoises that live there weren’t disturbed.

BrightSource also ended up needing a lot of capital to get both its early demo plants and Ivanpah up and running. BrightSource raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors included DBL Investors, Morgan Stanley, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, BP, Chevron, Alstom, Black River, and Statoil HydroVentures. BrightSource put up the first money into Ivanpah, but turned to partners to put up the rest.

As BrightSource made more progress with smaller demo solar plants like its one in partnership with Chevron in Coalinga, Calif., the company was able to secure some larger investors and partners behind Ivanpah. Bechtel came on to support Ivanpah in 2009 (as both an equity investor and builder), and NRG Energy took a majority share of the project with a $300 million investment in 2010.

Google even put in $168 million in 2011. Google is interested both in the financial return that a 25-year power contract can deliver, and also that it’s interested in backing clean power for its data centers both directly and indirectly.

The solar mirrors at Ivanpah spell out the word Google, a backer of the project.

The solar mirrors at Ivanpah spell out the word Google, a backer of the project. A view from the 6th floor of tower Unit 1.

Then of course, utilities PG&E and SCE have stepped in to become the customers for Ivanpah as they looked to meet aggressive state mandates that say utilities need to provide a certain amount of their electricity from clean sources. Without these California state mandates there would be no Ivanpah.

Finally there was the federal government and the Obama administration’s plan to use loan guarantees as a way to stimulate large job-creating projects. While the loan guarantee program was controversial because it gave money to companies like Solyndra and Fisker, it also gave $1.6 billion to Ivanpah. NRG Energy’s CEO David Crane said on Thursday that the project “unequivocally and without doubt” would not have been built without that loan.

Cleantech stories

But like so many cleantech stories, BrightSource struggled along the way. The company filed to go public in the spring of 2011, but a year later pulled that IPO after the public markets and the solar industry saw dark times. An IPO would have provided BrightSource’s investors an exit when it went public. Later VantagePoint Capital Partners was unable to raise its next fund due to lack of returns on the cleantech fund that backed BrightSource and many others.

BrightSource also shifted its strategy from building solar farms like Ivanpah to providing the technology for those solar farms, and having deep-pocketed power companies own and operate the farms. That strategy seems to be working now, and is a common transition for Silicon Valley-backed cleantech companies.

BrightSource is the latest example of a cleantech company that might not have made its venture capital backers money (at least not yet) but is now delivering disruptive and world-changing technology to the commercial markets. BrightSource has a pipeline of projects it wants to get built both in the Mojave and also internationally in South Africa, China and the Middle East.

Solar heat

Ivanpah is using markedly different solar technology than the type used by solar panels installed on rooftops. Solar panels directly convert light into electricity. Average panels convert about 10 percent to 12 percent of the light, while more high efficiency panels like those from SunPower convert about 20 percent.

Ivanpah with the boiler heated and on.

Ivanpah with the boiler heated and on.

Ivanpah uses solar thermal and tower power technology. That’s essentially a big field of mirrors that track the sun throughout the day and focus the sunlight up to the top of the boilers on top of the three towers throughout the field. It’s like if you’ve ever focused a magnifying glass on a leaf or an ant when you were a kid — power that up hundreds of thousands of times and you’ve got a pretty powerful energy source.

The boilers turn bright white as they reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and generate steam (as opposed to black when off). The steam operates a steam turbine which produces electricity. Unlike other solar thermal or fossil fuel power plants, Ivanpah uses dry cooling instead of water cooling to manage its heat. That’s important because as we’ve seen with the California drought, the future will be increasingly water-constrained.

Ivanpah with the Unit 1 off

Connectivity and computing is playing a role in Ivanpah as well. Each heliostat is connected by not only a power cable but also a data cable that controls each one ensuring they track the sun, or change position according to the facilities’ needs. When there are high winds the mirrors go into a safety flat position. When it rains they also go into that position to get a free mother nature washing. Data commands all aspects of the Ivanpah facility.

The future of solar thermal

Now that Ivanpah is fully built and constructed, the ironic part is that the technology is actually already dated. BrightSource’s CEO Ramm said during the media event on Thursday that future BrightSource projects will likely be 30 to 40 percent cheaper. That cost reduction will be because of efficiencies delivered in scaling up the technology, like moving from data cables to wireless data connections for the mirrors.

Andy Gillespie from Bechtel

Andy Gillespie from Bechtel in 2014

BrightSource will also focus future projects on moving from steam boilers to molten salt boilers, which can hold energy and store it during needed times like in the middle of the night. Storage will be increasingly important to make solar thermal a viable technology now that solar panels have dropped in price so dramatically.

Solar panels are actually the elephant in the room when it comes to a technology like Ivanpah’s. Over the seven years that it took Ivanpah to get permitted and built, solar panels are now at their cheapest time in history, and large solar panel projects are being built at scale, too. Solar thermal projects needed to provide something extra to compete at cost with both solar panel projects and fossil fuel power plants.

While Ivanpah might be the first of its kind, it represents the emergence of a solar power technology that can reach the kind of scale that a coal or natural gas plant can. Distributed solar panels on rooftops are disruptive to be sure, but in the near term utilities are looking for large power sources that can help them meet their mandates and that operate 24/7, like fossil fuel plants do.

While Ivanpah might not be perfect — it’s taken years and it’s more expensive than future projects — it’s also a symbol of how next-generation technology can deliver solutions to climate change at a scale that can compete with the incumbent technologies. It shows how Silicon Valley cleantech companies and entrepreneurs might not fit into the traditional venture capital model, but they’re continuing to bring disruptive technology to market that can change the energy game.

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  1. Really sorry to complain but can we please (a) have editors (b) who know the difference between its and it’s? “Its” like fingernails on a chalkboard.

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    1. @SDU, Thanks. Really great first comment. Really, really appreciate all your help on the matter.

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      1. SDU is right, actually. It is really annoying.

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      2. I agree with SDU. Grammar is a large part of effective writing; sarcasm is not.

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        1. Sarcasm can actually be pretty effective.

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          1. I value sarcasm.

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    2. your reply is awkward, spelling is not a sound already. phonetic is the sound. if your going to use metaphors at least compose one properly.
      slayerwulfe

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  2. How exactly is the Ivanpah array going to be a “disruptive technology” when it didn’t make money for it’s bakers? Its seems to me that a loss, is a loss, is a loss. Losses are only disruptive to the people continuing to fund them.

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    1. @John Ransom, Disruptive technology and making venture investors money aren’t necessarily aligned. See this tech: http://gigaom.com/2014/01/31/how-a-failed-clean-technology-could-be-the-key-to-future-iphone-screens/

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      1. Felix Hoenikker Monday, February 17, 2014

        its not disruptive at all, the technology has been around for a long time, see spain. At a basic level its just heating a boiler which we’ve been doing for a while and its terribly inefficient not so disruptive again. Its very expensive generating electricity on a cost basis in excess of what we pay today but rate payers and tax payers take it on the chin for some one else’s profit…not disruptive either. It uses lots of water…. in the desert? Storage isn’t really storage like they try to convince everyone… its natural gas that addresses their intermittentcy issues. It requires a bunch of ongoing O&M. Would have been more productive to subsidize more PV in California because its cheaper, distributed, actually clean, and disruptive. Lastly, if you’ve read any tech news in the last few moths you’d know that Apple just put a bunch of money into sapphire manufacturing for their next gen screens with GT Advanced Technologies. The same company that has been driving solar and LEDs in a big way for the last few years. I think the article doesn’t scrutinize the company or the technology giving readers a false sense of confidence.

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        1. If you are aware of Spain you will be aware of the Andasol plant which operates at night because it uses a molten salt to store the thermal energy and this deals with nights and rainfall. These systems are also closed loop, so the water doesn’t need to escape.

          PV has its own problems, it is made in a semiconductor process which uses toxic chemicals compared to a heliostat which is just a mirror. One of the primary reasons that PV is cheap is that billions of dollars have been thrown in by investors and have created over supply in the market, the fact that so many PV companies have gone bankrupt in recent years is testimony to this. PV panels also need to be recycled (if that is possible and facilities exist) after their useful life, whereas a solar thermal facility can be refurbished and materials reused or easily recycled.

          So, solar thermal is well tested (domestically for decades in hot climates) and generally non-toxic and repairable, whereas PV is a toxic bubble.

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        2. Lolololol, you just said “If you’ve read any tech news lately” to Katie fucking Fehrenbacher. LOOOOLZ.

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    2. im going to intervene for the intelligence of it. how many failures do you think Dr.T.A. Edison experienced before he perfected his electric light, or how many failures preceded the Wright Bros. success ? I want you to understand something John Ransom even a failure is a success because it alerts those doing and others, that this path may lead to failure. I hope this helps you.
      slayerwulfe cave

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      1. Felix Hoenikker Monday, February 17, 2014

        its not disruptive at all, katie doesn’t know what she is talking about (just like 60 minutes) the technology has been around for a long time, see spain. At a basic level its just heating a boiler which we’ve been doing for a while and its terribly inefficient not so disruptive again. Its very expensive generating electricity on a cost basis in excess of what we pay today but rate payers and tax payers take it on the chin for some one else’s profit…not disruptive either. It uses lots of water…. in the desert? Storage isn’t really storage like they try to convince everyone… its natural gas that addresses their intermittentcy issues. It requires a bunch of ongoing O&M. Would have been more productive to subsidize more PV in California because its cheaper, distributed, actually clean, and disruptive. Oh ya lastly Katie, if you’ve read any tech news in the last few moths you’d know that Apple just put a bunch of money into sapphire manufacturing for their next gen screens and they did it with GT, a cleantech company that drove the solar and LED industries. But you knew that as demonstrated by the link you just posted. jk you have no idea about cleantech or tech or when they join forces in big ways.

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      2. Felix Hoenikker Monday, February 17, 2014

        ohhhh nice fox news tactic, seed of doubt. No this is not good new disruptive cheap or anything more than a pushed political agenda disguised as progressive business.

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    3. Felix Hoenikker Monday, February 17, 2014

      its not disruptive at all, katie doesn’t know what she is talking about (just like 60 minutes) the technology has been around for a long time, see spain. At a basic level its just heating a boiler which we’ve been doing for a while and its terribly inefficient not so disruptive again. Its very expensive generating electricity on a cost basis in excess of what we pay today but rate payers and tax payers take it on the chin for some one else’s profit…not disruptive either. It uses lots of water…. in the desert? Storage isn’t really storage like they try to convince everyone… its natural gas that addresses their intermittentcy issues. It requires a bunch of ongoing O&M. Would have been more productive to subsidize more PV in California because its cheaper, distributed, actually clean, and disruptive.

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  3. 5 miles by 1 mile for 140,000 homes. Do the math. You people are so naïve. Increase the efficiency if you want. Use molten salt if you want. You’re not even making a dent. And all the while, you’re increasing entropy. Can’t get away from it unless you rewrite the laws of thermodynamics. You can’t change the energy game. Especially if you don’t change the population game.

    Cool stuff, but ultimately pointless. Thermodynamics… not just a suggestion, it’s the law. Spend our precious resources learning to live with it. You can’t change it. EVER!

    Asimov, 1956, the last question. Read it.

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    1. The Earth is not a closed system, it has a sun pouring gobs of energy into it. This solar farm captures some of that energy – and then we can use it. And without a lot of pollution.
      Can you be more direct with your objections, because I don’t really understand them.

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    2. Do the math? Ok:

      US population = ~300M
      Average people per home = 2.55 -> 117M homes
      homes powered per Ivanpah = 140k -> 840 Ivanpah
      mi^2 per Ivanpah = 5 -> 4500 mi^2

      And that’s a site that’s just 67 on a side. Building a site that big won’t happen and it would cost a huge amount to build that much, even in a distributed fashion, but it’s far from impossible. If you only do things you know will solve the whole problem, then you never do anything at all.

      So what if the pilot isn’t (yet?) returning a profit. The real question is can you take what you learn from it and go Daft Punk on it (better, cheaper, faster, stronger) for the next site?

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      1. So why does solar energy have to supply all of our energy needs before it becomes a useful and profitable addition to our national energy portfolio? Use what it has to offer in areas where it is profitable to do so, use other clean power generation technology in areas where they are reasonable and useful in supplying power. Who is claiming that we need one alternative technology to replace coal, oil and gas for the generation of electricity?

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    3. Worried about the sun and entropy – and think that should be part of a discussion on providing electricity to one or another region?

      Change your meds, dude.

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  4. Christopher Dale Frazee Thursday, February 13, 2014

    I am sorry I am very skeptical that wireless networking for that high of density and volume of network devices (one for each mirror) is practical. Not to mention with that many rf transmiters and receiveers the background noise would be obscene, making the effective usable bandwidth next to nothing. Saving money with wireless. . . I doubt it. . .

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    1. The wireless network would be no problem at all. The transmitters would not all be on at the same time and they would only be on for a very low percentage of the time. The data rate would be very low. Look up a technology like ZigBee, for instance.

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  5. It would have been much better if the article at least mentions the power output of the plant! According to wikipedia it’s just shy of 400MW. Hoover Dam is over 2000MW, so there’s no comparison at all. At the construction cost of $5500/kW output, this seems kind of expensive.

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    1. Compared to the money that was spent on Hoover originally perhaps, but considering the DoE says that on average it costs $2000/kW to build a new dam today and that this solar thermal plant has a low environmental impact compared to a dam, it looks not bad.

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    1. Citing a hack extremist political site does little to add compelling support for your postion.

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      1. WUWT posts articles and papers from scientists around the world. In other words, it’s open source. If you’re afraid of the free exchange of ideas, you would attack it with ad homs.

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  6. Reblogged this on Jordanfel's Blog and commented:
    Even with all of the long-term problems I can imagine coming from this fashion of powering, I still like the idea!

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  7. Nichol Brummer Friday, February 14, 2014

    Nice piece. I liked the story about the people behind it, and how politics in big companies play a role too. Good that the original Brightsource company survived through the whole process.

    But I’ve still not seen an article that made a comparison with the concentrated solar projects in Spain. In which ways is Ivanpah a step forward, and how much has it been scaled compared to the previous largest solar thermal plants? How much did they bring down costs? Was any technology shared with spanish companies? Or is this a project driven by American patriotism that insisted in re-inventing its own weels again? The Spanish power tower wiki’s say that they were derived from the first one in the US.

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    1. Nichol, you raise some interesting questions – I will try to answer them. With most of the Spanish CSP plants being 50 MW parabolic trough plants that got an obscene feed in tariff of over $400/MWh Ivanpah is:

      1. About twice the size with ~125 net MWe per unit. The entire plant produces 377 MWe net according to BS, developer of the technology.
      2. Cheaper with its energy being sold at somewhere around $130/MWh
      3. Less water intensive because it uses dry cooling instead of wet cooling that most Spanish plants use.
      4. Capable of making hotter steam (~540C vs ~380C for Spanish Trough Plants)
      5. Able to be constructed with far less site preparation. BS plants can work on ground with up to 5% slope. Trough plants need a slope of 1% or less – essentially flat so you have to do lots of grading to build a trough plant.

      In addition to producing at lower cost than the Spanish trough plants, BS / Ivanpah did manage to beat the price of other US trough plants built by Abengoa and NextEra. These plants sell their energy for $140 – $180/MWh.

      Despite these improvements and a great effort to complete Ivanpah I suspect we won’t see another BS plant built. With a recent First Solar PV project in New Mexico selling it’s energy for < $60/MWh ($57.50) You'd have to cut the capital cost of the next BS plant by more than 50% to match that energy price. CSP plants have too much steel, are too hard to build and maintain and they need much better solar resource than PV plants do. Never mind transmission upgrades to get to the best CSP sites. It's cool technology but so was the betamax.

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  8. Good story, but the headline is hyperbole. The Hoover Dam of solar? Hardly. Hoover Dam is rated at 2080 megawatts total output from its multiple turbines. Ivanpah is rated at 400 MW, a relatively small output compared to a standard coal or natural gas power plant, especially for $2.2 billion dollar construction cost. And it doesn’t run all night, like Hoover, only until the stored heat is gone. Hoover cost $824 million in today’s dollars. Hoover requires much less maintenance than something with all Ivanpah’s moving parts, and will be operating for decades to come. Ivanpah is based on technology that’s already out of date. It may or may not be operating in 10 years, and will be remembered as an interesting white elephant, I suspect.

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    1. Jordan Bloomfield Friday, February 14, 2014

      This solar thermal plant has way less of an initial environmental impact than the Hoover dam (ie. it didn’t destroy a valley: the article said that they tread lightly as to not disturb the handful of turtles!). So if you were to 5x the size this solar plant (a hooverish ~2000MW) you would have much more Eco-friendly and long lasting energy source that no person or ecosystem has to die for. Sure it would cost more, but costs are coming down and efficiencies are going up.

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      1. Never mind that the Hoover Dam provides huge benefits beside power – water to millions, recreation, agriculture and you worry about turtles!

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        1. Since I’m trained in ecology and evolutionary biology, I’m familiar with concerns about the environmental impacts of big dams. Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams are actually dwarfed by the volcanic events that have dammed the Colorado River in the past 2 million years (http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/uinkaret-volcanic-field). We’ve been impacting ecosystems since genus Homo first appeared and drove the big carnivores to extinction (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/early-humans-not-climate-change-decimated-africas-large-carnivores/). We need get a lot better at understanding and managing our impacts, but I’m not optimistic.

          Kate, I’m pleased to see you’re watching the comments. Did you see the excellent article in Sci Am recently by Vaclav Smil? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-global-transition-to-renewable-energy-will-take-many-decades/.

          Thanks for your good work.

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  9. Good coverage

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