CSP at the Crossroads

Rick Nelson 90x110

The Ivanpah concentrating solar power (CSP) plant in California’s Mojave Desert was formally dedicated in February. Speaking at the 3,500-acre site, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said, “This project speaks for itself. Just look at the 170,000 shining heliostat mirrors and the three towers that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty. Ivanpah is the largest solar thermal energy facility in the world with 392 MW of capacity—meaning it can produce enough renewable electricity to power nearly 100,000 homes.”

The project is not without controversy. Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times explained to On Point radio host Tom Ashbrook on Feb. 19 that the $2.2 billion project was funded with $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees. Further, dozens of birds mistaking the mirror field for a lake have died.

The bird issue might be the least of the problems. As reported in Greentech Media, David Crane, president of facility owner NRG, said that millions of birds are regularly killed by housecats and urban skyscrapers. Nevertheless, he said NRG is working with environmental regulators to reduce bird kills to zero.

More problematic is that, according to Cart, the government is unlikely to continue doling out big money to such projects. In addition, CSP technology might become the victim of solar’s success. As Cart told Ashbrook, California is in line to meet renewable-energy requirements, making it unattractive for utilities—having met their mandates—to buy more expensive CSP power.

And CSP faces competition from PV. Tonio Buonassisi, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, told On Point’s Ashbrook that photovoltaic panel prices are now 1% of what they were 30 years ago. He noted that 20% of all new installed energy nationally last year was solar—with CSP representing a small fraction.

Indeed, even at the Ivanpah dedication ceremony, Secretary Moniz emphasized the DoE’s commitment to an array of energy initiatives in a carbon-constrained economy, including carbon capture and sequestration, advanced fossil-energy projects, and retooling of the automotive industry in addition to projects like Ivanpah.

Nevertheless, Daniel Kammen, professor of energy and founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the UC Berkeley, told Ashbrook he does expect to see more CSP plants—coupled with renewable distributed power sources. And he pointed out that renewable-energy projects receive a fraction of the subsidies showered on the fossil-fuel infrastructure.

Kamman said that large-scale solar projects plus distributed-energy generation sources on 120,000 California homes—coupled with natural gas—have resulted in electricity rates for the average homeowner in the state that are 30% less than in the rest of country.

Buonassisi elaborated on the competition between CSP and PV. In 2008, he said, CSP represented a dominant market share of solar power. Now, the technologies have traded places. However, he said both technologies have headroom to improve, and he doesn’t want to extrapolate into the future.

Indeed, CSP offers advantages such as the capability to store heat in molten salt to provide generation capabilities at night. Ultimately, finding the best mix of large-scale renewable power generation, distributed energy sources, and advanced fossil-fuel plants will require continued experimentation.

As Secretary Moniz put it at Ivanpah, “Investing in clean energy isn’t a decision that limits our economic potential—it’s an opportunity to lead the global clean technology markets that are forming right now. We simply can’t afford to be at the back of the train—we have to be at the front, leading the world in these industries.”

Rick Nelson 90x110

Rick Nelson
Executive Editor
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