Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz marked the opening of the world’s largest solar thermal plant on Thursday in the Mojave Desert near the border of California and Nevada. The 392-MW Ivanpah project, developed by BrightSource Energy Co, started operating last month after six years of construction.
With California struggling through one of the worst droughts on record, and Ivanpah already being located in a high desert climate, water conservation has been a major focus. Solar thermal plants use solar mirrors to heat water in boilers that in turn produce steam to turn the electricity generating turbines, are more water intensive than more common solar photovoltaic panels.
“Ivanpah is utilizing dry-cooling technology that dramatically reduces water usage,” Moniz said. “In fact, this entire facility will use roughly the same amount of water as two holes at the nearby golf course.”
The electricity generated at Ivanpah will be enough to power more than 100,000 homes, and is expected to avoid more than 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year lifetime, or the equivalent of taking over two million cars off the road. Last year, utility-scale solar installed a record 2.3 gigawatts.
“President Obama and the Department of Energy are committed to ensuring that all sources of energy are competitive in a carbon constrained economy,” Moniz continued, citing the more than $24 billion in loan guarantees the department has made for clean energy programs as well as the over $8 billion for fossil fuel projects that lower emissions.
The Department of Energy provided the Ivanpah project with a $1.6 billion loan guarantee, which helped attract investors such as NGR Solar and Google, which invested $168 million, according to Peter Davidson, executive director of the DOE’s Loan Program Office.
The DOE’s loan program has been a strong success — despite setbacks such as Solyndra, which threaten to take over the narrative when turned into political fodder. As of last year, losses only accounted for about two percent of the $34 billion portfolio, far less than the $10 billion loan loss reserve set aside by Congress for expected losses.
However, with projects like Ivanpah locking in the one-third renewable energy requirement that California utilities must use by 2020, and out-of-state projects offering potential competition, it’s doubtful that many more massive solar plants in interior California will be built in the near future. Smaller, distributed solar projects are also less impactful on fragile ecosystems and can be placed closer to energy-demanding metropolitans.
“The glory days, if you will, are behind us,” Tom Doyle, president of NRG Solar, the majority owner of Ivanpah, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
California is already the nation’s largest solar market because of its bright skies and statewide efforts. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry adds about $2.6 billion into the economy.
And the state’s lawmakers continue to look for new ways to stay on top of the nation’s clean energy leader board, passing a law last year that would allow state regulators to raise renewable requirements without having to go through the legislature first. Democratic State Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez has also introduced legislation that would facilitate the process of raising renewable goals, possibly by up to 50 percent by 2030.