Ivanpah Solar’s Status: A Bit Cloudy

Is it or isn’t it? There’s a mystery surrounding the status of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, the U.S. Department of Energy-backed, record-breaking big, concentrating solar power tower project in the Mojave Desert of California: Is it online or isn’t it?

Some news outlets have reported in the past week that Ivanpah began operating and sending power to the grid in late December. EarthTechling has been unable to get confirmation of this from BrightSource Energy or NRG Energy, the two main companies behind the project (Google is also an investor and Bechtel is the actual builder). Meanwhile, based on extensive reporting, ReWire blogger Chris Clarke has concluded that the plant’s status has been off and on, but that it “generated almost no power during the month of January.”

One the unit towers at Ivanpah (image via BrightSource Energy)

One the unit towers at Ivanpah (image via BrightSource Energy)

Based on daily reports filed with the California Independent System Operator, Clarke said that while “the Ivanpah Project was indeed scheduled to go online on December 30, the project spent the entire month of January with at least one of its units going through unplanned downtime every single day.”

Ivanpah consists of three units – 459-foot-tall towers surrounded by hundreds of thousands of garage-door-sized reflectors that shine sun power on receivers atop the towers, heating water to generate electricity.

“(T)here were only two days during the month of January where the project had two of its units apparently online at 3:15 p.m.,” a time when one would expect generation, Clark said. “Unit 1, the first of the project’s three units to be completed, was offline at 3:15 every day in January, but on January 12 and 16 it was the only unit going through an unplanned outage. Unit 2 was online at 3:15 on five days in January, and offline on the remaining 26, Unit 3 had the best record for January, with eight days in which it wasn’t reportedly offline at 3:15 p.m.”

EarthTechling in mid-January asked BrightSource for a status update on Ivanpah and on Jan. 23 received this message from spokesman Jared Blanton: “We will have an update on Ivanpah’s status in the coming weeks. Nothing new to report today.” A week later, Clarke’s inquiries to Blanton were met with the reply that NRG was now handling Ivanpah news. This week, when EarthTechling asked a PR rep representing NRG if Ivanpah was online, we were sent an invitation to a dedication ceremony on Feb. 13, which will include a keynote speech by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and an appearance by the band The Fray, whose members have a thing for big solar in the desert.

Ivanpah will be the world’s largest solar thermal plant once it begins full operations, sending power from units 1 and 3 to Pacific Gas & Electric and from Unit 2 to Southern California Edison, under long-term power purchase agreements. The plant has drawn criticism from some environmentalists, most notably for its impact on fragile endangered desert tortoise habitat, but also for dust problems linked to the development and, as Clarke has reported, bird injuries and deaths apparently resulting from encounters with the plant’s searing focused energy.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.