Solar Power Still Disappointing

Published July 20, 2015

Despite billions of dollars in federal and state government subsidies, expensive solar power projects are failing to live up to promises their backers made concerning the amount of electricity they would generate.

The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar power project in California’s Mojave Desert, for example, was supposed to be generating more than a million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. Fifteen months after beginning operations, the U.S. Department of Energy reports the plant is producing just 40% of that amount.

Invanpah uses solar-thermal technology rather than traditional solar panels to generate electricity. At Ivanpah, more than 170,000 mirrors direct sun’s rays to power towers — towering boilers — creating steam, which turns turbines. Built by BrightSource Energy Inc. and operated by NRG Energy Inc., Ivanpah was promoted as more reliable than a traditional solar panel farm, in part, because it more closely resembles conventional coal or natural gas fired power plants.

Unproven Technology, Steep Learning Curve 

The new technology has proved to be rife with bugs and glitches. Broken and malfunctioning equipment and operational inexperience has stalled Ivanpah’s ability to reach full potential. As reported on MarketWatch (6/13/15), Randy Hickok, a senior vice president at NRG, said “There’s a lot more on-the-job learning with Ivanpah,” 

MarketWatch reports, “one big miscalculation was that the power plant requires far more steam to run smoothly and efficiently than originally thought, according to a document filed with the California Energy Commission. Instead of ramping up the plant each day before sunrise by burning one hour’s worth of natural gas to generate steam, Ivanpah needs more than four times that much help from fossil fuels to get plant humming every morning.”

In addition, the site has received less sunlight than it’s planners had projected.

A large Arizona solar thermal plant built two years ago by Abengoa SA of Spain has also failed to meet expectations. The plant is delivering less than half the million megawatt hours of power it promised annually. 

Solar Thermal ‘too expensive’

Solar-thermal developers including Abengoa and BrightSource have new plants under construction in South Africa, Chile and China. But, as reported by MarketWatch, Lucas Davis, a University of California, Berkeley economics professor, says it is unlikely further U.S. projects will be built.

“I don’t expect a lot of solar thermal to get built. It’s just too expensive,” he said. 

Despite a tremendous amount of subsidies, solar power, whether from traditional arrays of solar photovoltaic panels or solar thermal generate less than 1% of U.S. electricity demand. Solar arrays, however, provide six times more power than solar-thermal plants and, though still more expensive than traditional power plants, cost roughly half as much to build as their solar thermal rivals.

Solar thermal plants and solar panel industrial sites have had significant environmental impacts that continue to slow their adoption and development. For instance, the Ivanpah plant was delayed several months and had millions of dollars in cost overruns because of wildlife protections for the endangered Desert Tortoise. Once built, U.S. government biologists found the plant’s superheated mirrors were killing birds. 

Whether in terms of ecology or economics, the costs of solar power are high, and the amount of power delivered underwhelming and less than expected.

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