Solar Power on the Rise in Golden State

On the outskirts of Vegas, the world’s largest solar project is ready to power up.

Ivanpah: Online by year-end.
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Oct. 27, 2013, 7:38 a.m.

NIPTON, Cal­if. — Once we passed Whis­key Pete’s, a taw­dry castle-turned-casino/hotel where rooms go for $36 a night, I got my first glimpse of Ivan­pah, the world’s largest sol­ar pro­ject, which cost $2.6 bil­lion to build. The con­trast between the two struc­tures near the Cali­for­nia-Nevada bor­der some 50 miles south of Las Ve­gas was stun­ning.

Ivan­pah, a sol­ar-thermal sys­tem jointly owned by Google, Bright­Source En­ergy, and NRG and built by Bechtel, uses more than 300,000 mir­rors (tech­nic­ally called he­lio­stats) to con­cen­trate the sun’s en­ergy. The fu­tur­ist­ic pro­ject will be­gin gen­er­at­ing elec­tri­city by year’s end for 140,000 Cali­for­nia homes.

The day I vis­ited was over­cast, which raises the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: How can Ivan­pah work without sun­light?

“Be­cause there are more mir­rors at any giv­en point of time than is needed, it com­pensates for weath­er con­di­tions to en­sure you’re get­ting enough re­flec­ted sun­shine,” said Joe Des­mond, seni­or vice pres­id­ent of mar­ket­ing and gov­ern­ment af­fairs at Bright­Source, who gave me the tour. “By and large, this has some of the best sun any­where on the plan­et,” Des­mond ad­ded quickly, re­fer­ring to the Ivan­pah dry lake, the Mo­jave Desert basin where the pro­ject is loc­ated.

Al­though the closest large city to Ivan­pah is Ve­gas, the in­stall­a­tion is situ­ated in Cali­for­nia and em­bod­ies the Golden State’s am­bi­tious en­ergy and change-cli­mate agenda.

“People are sur­prised they don’t know that we’re build­ing the largest sol­ar fa­cil­ity in the world in our coun­try right now,” said Dav­id Hayes, former deputy In­teri­or sec­ret­ary, who helped per­mit the 3,500 acres of pub­lic lands the pro­ject takes up.

Ivan­pah is a pro­to­type of how com­pan­ies use a mix of gov­ern­ment policies to make a busi­ness plan work for an in­nov­at­ive but not yet fully scaled tech­no­logy. In April 2011, Ivan­pah won a $1.6 bil­lion loan guar­an­tee from the En­ergy De­part­ment, the largest amount awar­ded un­der the stim­u­lus-fun­ded pro­gram. Once the pro­ject be­gins gen­er­at­ing elec­tri­city, it will be­gin to pay back that loan. Enter an­oth­er gov­ern­ment policy: the 30 per­cent in­vest­ment tax cred­it for sol­ar sys­tems. “Al­most all of that [tax cred­it] will be used to pay the loan down im­me­di­ately,” Des­mond said.

While it might seem coun­ter­in­tu­it­ive that a com­pany would pay back the gov­ern­ment with fed­er­al money, Des­mond says that’s how the En­ergy De­part­ment de­signed it.

“One of the things DOE ne­go­ti­ated on be­half of the tax­pay­ers is that when the tax cred­it be­comes avail­able that it be used to im­me­di­ately pay back the bal­ance to the be­ne­fit of the tax­pay­ers,” Des­mond said.

Next comes the last — but ar­gu­ably most im­port­ant — piece of gov­ern­ment policy that’s help­ing make Ivan­pah pos­sible: Cali­for­nia’s al­tern­at­ive-en­ergy stand­ard, which is the most am­bi­tious in the coun­try. By 2020, the state must gen­er­ate 33 per­cent of its elec­tri­city from re­new­able-en­ergy sources.

“The tra­di­tion­al view that re­new­able en­ergy is nev­er go­ing to get above a few per­cent, that’s been blown up in Cali­for­nia,” said Hayes, who is now a pro­fess­or at Stan­ford Law School near San Fran­cisco.

Na­tion­ally, the tra­di­tion­al view Hayes speaks of re­mains dom­in­ant. Re­new­able en­ergy, more than half of which is hy­dro­power, gen­er­ated 12 per­cent of the na­tion’s elec­tri­city in 2012, ac­cord­ing to En­ergy In­form­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion data. Sol­ar power makes up 1 per­cent of that 12 per­cent, which means its over­all share of the elec­tri­city pie barely re­gisters at 0.12 per­cent.

Bright­er days seem to be on the ho­ri­zon. EIA pre­dicts that over the next 30 years, even without a sig­ni­fic­ant boost in gov­ern­ment pro­mo­tion of re­new­able en­ergy, pro­duc­tion will in­crease by 150 per­cent. Sol­ar power spe­cific­ally is ex­pec­ted to go up by more than 1,000 per­cent. By 2040, EIA es­tim­ates, re­new­able en­ergy, led by wind and sol­ar, will com­prise one-fifth of total U.S. elec­tri­city. While it still ac­counts for a dis­tinctly minor­ity share of power gen­er­a­tion after coal and nat­ur­al gas, re­new­able en­ergy’s re­l­at­ive pro­jec­ted growth is sig­ni­fic­ant.

“It is not sur­pris­ing that tech­no­lo­gies that are earli­er on a tech­no­logy mat­ur­a­tion curve have lower pen­et­ra­tion rates and high­er costs than those that are ma­ture,” said Jonath­an Sil­ver, who headed DOE’s loan-guar­an­tee pro­gram and over­saw the Ivan­pah loan ap­prov­al. “But mov­ing up that ma­tur­ity curve by defin­i­tion in­creases their com­mer­cial­iz­a­tion and drops their cost.”

Sil­ver, who left DOE in the sum­mer of 2011 and is now a vis­it­ing seni­or fel­low at Third Way, dis­missed the tiny slice sol­ar makes today in our elec­tri­city pie: “It’s more im­port­ant to un­der­stand the movie here than the pho­to­graph.”

One pho­to­graph that Sil­ver — and every­one else in the sol­ar in­dustry — would rather for­get is Solyn­dra, the sol­ar man­u­fac­turer that gen­er­ated a polit­ic­al firestorm when it went bank­rupt after re­ceiv­ing a $535 mil­lion loan guar­an­tee from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

Des­mond de­scribes Ivan­pah as the “anti-Solyn­dra.” I wouldn’t go quite that far. Bright­Source had its share of troubles. But it is clear that Ivan­pah is on the cusp of a suc­cess­ful launch, where­as Solyn­dra barely got off the ground.

In fact, Ivan­pah was so close to its first day of full-scale power gen­er­a­tion that our tour was lim­ited due to the pro­ject’s fi­nal pre­par­a­tions. We couldn’t get too close to the he­lio­stats or drive up next to what in­dustry ex­perts call the three “power towers,” which stand 459 feet tall (more than 150 feet high­er than the Statue of Liberty) and help gen­er­ate the steam that cre­ates the elec­tri­city.

Maybe I should have vis­ited earli­er, so I would have been able to see more up close. But mostly I was dis­ap­poin­ted I hadn’t vis­ited one week earli­er. I missed by mere days a vis­it by the band the Fray, which shot its forth­com­ing al­bum cov­er with he­lio­stats in the back­ground. Its lead sing­er, Isaac Slade, “is very much a lead­er in re­new­able en­ergy,” Des­mond told me.

After our tour, on the way back, I no­ticed an­oth­er tacky hotel, Buf­falo Bill’s (with a roller coast­er!), and an­oth­er sol­ar pro­ject. Ap­par­ently that’s what grows well in the desert out­skirts of Ve­gas: Cheap ho­tels and sol­ar power.

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