BrightSource to build largest concentrating solar power plant

On August 4th, 2010, Brightsource Energy Inc., an Oakland, California-based developer of utility-scale solar thermal power plants, announced that the California Energy Commission’s (CEC) siting committee recommended approval of what will be the world’s largest solar energy project.  The project, called the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS), consists of a three-plant, 392-megawatt solar electric generating system located in California’s Mojave Desert.  After a 30-day comment period passes, the final permits allowing the commencement of construction will most likely be issued.  Additionally, Brightsource Inc. has received a conditional commitment from the U.S. Department of Energy for $1.37 billion in loan guarantees to fund the project.

The electric power that the plants generate will be contracted to two utility companies, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co., under separate long-term contracts that will deliver more than 2,600 megawatts of electric power.  Impressively, Ivanpah will double the amount of solar thermal electricity currently produced in the U.S.  Additional benefits of the project include:

  • Creation of more than 1,000 local union jobs at the peak of construction.
  • Production of enough clean energy to power 140,000 homes.
  • Reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by more than 400,000 tons annually, the equivalent of taking more than 70,000 cars off the road.
  • Providing $650 million in employee wages over its first 30-year life.

Solar thermal power produces electricity by using mirrors to heat water or molten salt in a central tower.” While other solar technologies can require extensive land grading and concrete pads, the Ivanpah project takes a different approach to environmental design; the project will feature mirrors mounted on poles that are placed directly into the ground allowing the solar field to be built around the natural contours of the land and avoiding areas of sensitive vegetation.  Moreover, the high altitude and flat landscape of the Mojave Desert make it an ideal landscape for solar thermal technology.

Bob Balgenorth, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, says of the project:

This proposed decision moves us one step closer to putting the High Desert’s talented labor pool to work building our state’s much needed infrastructure.  Ivanpah is setting a great standard by training and employing the middle-class workers that support our state’s economy.

According to Amy Davidsen, U.S. Director of The Climate Group:

Large-scale solar technologies provide one of our best hopes for solving the problem of global climate change.  To meet this potential, we need to scale up the use of these technologies as soon as possible.  Today’s proposed decision recommending approval of the Ivanpah project represents a major step toward the realization of this goal.

The Ivanpah project demonstrates that, when we invest heavily in clean energy technology, the benefits will range from job creation to carbon dioxide reductions to a reinvigorated economy to abundant energy production.  The future now appears brighter because of this step towards clean energy technology.

Guest blogger Laurel Hunt is an intern with the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress. She is a rising senior at University of California Santa Cruz.

13 Responses to BrightSource to build largest concentrating solar power plant

  1. Sasparilla says:

    Just some additional information, first plant is scheduled to come online in mid 2012, with completion of all plants (3) scheduled for 2013 (if things remain on schedule…).

  2. Maria Smith says:

    20,000 dollars per home. It is shut down at night. For anothe couple billion, they can have back up power.

  3. mike roddy says:

    Thanks for this, but please clarify the plant’s total size and construction timelines.

  4. @2 The virtue of solar concentrating is that you can store the heat and run at night, though as a practical matter power consumption is generally larger during daylight hours. It is not obvious that night storage is the best way to start building these; that’s why people have senior engineering staffs. $20,000 per home — I did not check your number on this — is $500/year over a 40-year plant life time. Every other power source also has a cost.

  5. Theodore says:

    Is it 392 Megawatts or 2600 Megawatts?

  6. rjs says:

    theodore, based on 140,000 homes, it must be 392 MW, and even thats a lot of consumption per home…

    it would be interesting to total the energy costs in mining, manufacturing and transport of the materials for the installation, and the transmission towers & lines from the far side of the state…

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Off topic, but related:
    The 23 Most Cost-Effective Policies for Stopping Climate Change
    (Thanks to Brett Anderson for finding this.)

  8. Don says:

    How much to coal-fired plants cost in construction etc. This is the future, and fossil fuels are the past.

  9. Ronald Brak says:

    According to wikipedia the plant will be 392 megawatts when completed. The total cost has not been released. Loan guarantees are 1.3 billion. Assuming an average output of 150 megawatts, which probably isn’t unreasonable for a two axis tracking system, this gives a minimum cost of about $8,700 per average kilowatt of output. If the total cost is that low then it is extremely competitive on account of how most of the electricity is produced during periods of high demand. However, my guess is the total cost is probably considerably higher, as if it were that cheap they would be boasting about their low costs.

  10. Leland Palmer says:

    Brightsource also has a very interesting patent application, in which a solar receiver containing sapphire tubes filled with porous dark colored materials allows collecting solar heat at temperatures of up to 1500K. This would allow a gas turbine combined cycle to be added to the solar power plant. This could boost overall thermal efficiencies from roughly 30 to roughly 50 percent- increasing electical output by 40% or so, and cutting the cooling requirements by something like 30%.

    Apparently, Googling around, there is at least one company that makes such tubes by edge defined film fed growth (EFG) a much faster and cheaper process than traditional crystal growth methods.

    Application number: 11/747,595
    Publication number: US 2008/0011290 A1

    It has been
    further proposed to construct a central solar power tower
    system in which the working fluid is compressed air, where
    the solar-heated compressed air is later used in a Brayton
    cycle gas turbine in place of compressed air heated by
    combustion of a fuel, with the possibility of further improving
    the overall efficiency of the system by adding, for
    example, a heat recovery steam generator and a Rankine
    cycle steam turbine in a combined-cycle configuration. One
    problem encountered in the development of such a solar
    power tower system is the lack of availability of a solar
    receiver that can effectively heat a pressurized working fluid
    such as compressed air to the input temperature of a gas
    turbine, in the neighborhood of 1500° K.

    Solar thermal power at 30% overall thermal efficiency is good. Solar thermal power at 50% thermal efficiency could possibly make this the cheapest form of electricity generation in our carbon constrained future.

    The DOE should fund building such an absorber, and give BrightSource whatever technical and supercomputer modeling assistance they need to make this a reality, IMO.

    If the U.S., with our supercomputers, scientific organizations like NASA filled with fine scientists, national laboratories, and universities filled with Nobel Prize winning scientists is capable of building such a high temperature solar receiver, now would be a good time to do it.

    It occurs to me that putting a natural gas burner in line with the solar absorber, and turning that burner on if the sun is suddenly occluded, would be one way to protect such a high temperature receiver from thermal shock. The burner could then be ramped down slowly, to protect the receiver from being damaged by thermal shock.

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    “allows collecting solar heat at temperatures of up to 1500K”

    ““Archimede”, the first Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plant in the World to use molten salts for heat transfer and storage, and the first to be fully integrated to an existing combined-cycle gas power plant.”

    “Molten salts can operate at higher temperatures than oils (up to 550°C instead of 390°C), therefore increasing efficiency and power output of a plant.”

    550°C is 823K. If Brightsource’s “1500K” system does work then a lot more heat could be moved to storage. It certainly would be a big step forward….

  12. This is most certainly a great step forward but I am more excited about celebrating once the system has been built and the energy is helping California’s economy turn around. Concentrated solar makes sense and once we have this one we can truly study the long term conclusions possible.

  13. Mike#22 says:

    Is it 392 Megawatts or 2600 Megawatts? The smaller number is for what this facility will deliver, the larger looks to be how much power the utilities would buy from BrightSource if more facilities are built.