Solar Power Plant’s Carbon Dioxide Emissions Shock Californians

Published November 5, 2015

The Ivanpah solar power plant in the Mojave Desert, promoted and supported by the Obama administration in its push to reduce America’s carbon dioxide emissions, is running afoul of California’s strict carbon emission laws.

Even before beginning operations the Ivanpah plant noted it would use natural gas as a supplementary fuel. However, data from the California Energy Commission show the plant burned much more natural gas than expected, as the electric power generated by the plant has 40 percent below expectations. As a result, Ivanpah burned enough natural gas in its first year of operation in 2014 to emit more than 46,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — nearly twice the threshold for power plants or factories in California to be required to participate in the state’s carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program.

The same amount of natural gas burned at a conventional power plant would have produced enough electricity to meet the annual needs of 17,000 California homes – or roughly a quarter of the Ivanpah plant’s total electricity for 2014.

Natural gas is used both to preheat water entering the boilers mounted on top of three 459-foot-tall towers at Ivanpah and as an auxiliary source of power at night and when clouds block the sun.

Despite questions being raised about the plant’s environmental impact and economic viability, the U.S. Department of Energy granted Ivanpah $1.6 billion in loan guarantees. It also qualified for more than $600 million in federal tax credits. The October 16, Press Enterprise notes, President Barack Obama praised Ivanpah in his weekly radio address just before construction began. “With projects like this one, and others across this country, we are staking our claim to continued leadership in the new global economy. And we’re putting Americans to work producing clean, home-grown American energy that will help lower our reliance on foreign oil and protect our planet for future generations,” the Press Enterprise quotes Obama as saying.

Solar Not So Green

The Department of Interior expedited the approval of the use of nearly six miles of public land for the plant, despite environmentalists’ concerns about the destruction of wild lands and damage to the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.

Other environmental and safety problems have arisen since Ivanpah began operations. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates Ivanpah solar towers kill 28,000 birds annually as the superheated sun’s rays reflecting off the mirrors cause birds to catch fire mid-flight. In addition, pilots in the area have said during certain times of day, the rays from the tower blind them, causing serious flight safety risks.

David Lamfrom, desert project manager of the National Parks Conservation Association, told the Press Enterprise, the amount of natural gas used at Ivanpah shows the plant is essentially a hybrid operation requiring fossil fuel and sunshine to make electricity. He doubts the project would have been approved if it had been billed as a hybrid plant. “‘It feels like a bait and switch,'” Lamfrom said. “‘This project was held up as a model of innovation. We didn’t sign up for greener energy. We signed up for green energy.'”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.