Super-Green Solar Energy Plant Not So Green After All.

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Located in the Mojave desert, the BrightSource Energy Ivanpah solar energy plant has been touted by the media as the green energy industry’s poster child.

As the project was getting underway in 2010, President Obama had high praise for the plant, saying;

“This month, in the Mojave Desert, a company called BrightSource plans to break ground on a revolutionary new type of solar power plant. It’s going to put about a thousand people to work building a state-of-the-art facility. And when it’s complete, it will turn sunlight into the energy that will power up to 140,000 homes – the largest such plant in the world.”

Super-Green Solar Energy Plant Not So Green After All.
The massive Ivanpah solar energy plant located in the Mojave desert.

Green energy is fine, as are big projects that put a lot of people to work. But full disclosure is a good thing, too, in my opinion. You might not expect it, but this solar energy plant uses natural gas. The California Energy Commission initially deemed that heat input from natural gas could be no more than 5 percent of the heat the plant captures from the sun. But by March 2014, plant operators realized that simply wasn’t going to cut it. They asked the CEC to increase the annual allowance from 984 to 1,575 million standard cubic feet of natural gas, which the CEC obligingly did.

With early expectations of an energy output over 1 million megawatt hours, Ivanpah’s performance has been disappointing, “Output did pick up in the typically sunny months of May, June, July and August, as one might expect, with 189,156 MWh generated in that four-month period. But even that higher production rate would translate to annual electricity output of less than 600,000 MWh, at least 40 percent below target.”

The plant’s natural gas consumption ended up being far greater than originally projected. Its energy output has proven to be far lower than projected. Birds flying over the facility run the risk of getting torched in mid-flight, creating what have been termed “streamers” for the plume of smoke as it falls tot he ground. BrightSource has spent over $56 million relocating tortoises native to the plant site, and you know that project had to have a good-sized carbon footprint itself. It all makes me wonder how green green really is.

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