Big solar comes ever closer. A few months after we learned about India’s plans to install 10 GW of solar by 2017, the world’s largest CSP (concentrating solar power) plant is officially operating.
Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is a massive solar farm located in the Californian Mojave desert close to Las Vegas, Nevada. Instead of using photovoltaic energy, Ivanpah utilizes thermal energy to produce electricity in the same way as a traditional power plant.
The farm consists of 173,500 heliostats (moveable mirrors) that reflect sunlight at three enormous towers. These towers stand about 450 ft/137 m high – imagine three 40 story office buildings. Each tower has a water-filled receiver mounted on top, and when the reflected sunlight hits these up they glow white with heat. The water in the receivers turns to high temperature steam, and the steam powers conventional turbines. The farm will create a total of 392 megawatts (MW) of electricity yearly.
How much is 392 MW? It’s enough to power 140,000 homes. Obtaining 392 MW from fossil fuels would add 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per year, and replacing that 392 MW with clean energy is equivalent to removing 72,000 vehicles from the roads.
Of course, any project you can describe with the words large-scale renewable energy is bound to be mired in controversy, and there’s a lot for cynics to latch onto here: the project took years longer to develop and construct than planned, and it cost billions of USD. The project is built on public (Bureau of Land Management) land, and required the relocation of a lot of threatened desert tortoises. The LA Times reported on this with the headline Saving desert tortoises is a costly hurdle for solar projects:
BrightSource has spent $56 million so far to protect and relocate the tortoises, but even at that price, the work has met with unforeseen calamity: Animals crushed under vehicle tires, army ants attacking hatchlings in a makeshift nursery and one small tortoise carried off to an eagle nest, its embedded microchip pinging faintly as it receded.
Not to be outdone, The Wall Street Journal called the Ivanpah The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project:
A giant solar-power project officially opening this week in the California desert is the first of its kind, and may be among the last, in part because of growing evidence that the technology it uses is killing birds.
The WSJ also complained about the price of the power, because, you know – if it isn’t cheap, we should be burning old tires for fuel instead. None of this criticism is going to stop this technology. Ivanpah is a big, messy, expensive project because we’re moving into uncharted territory – uncharted, but inevitable. Our current nuclear and fossil fuel technology will one day be replaced by large scale clean power. This is big solar’s first step.
Regardless of what anyone thinks about the project, the farm itself is an amazing sight:
And don’t miss the Ivanpah gallery here on Earth Power News.