World’s largest solar installation delivers first power to grid

Part financed by Google, the $2.2 billion Ivanpah project is expected to come online by the end of this year

Ivanpah. (Pic: Brightsouce)

Google’s $168 million project to construct the world’s largest solar thermal plant produced its first output of energy yesterday.

Located in California’s Mojave Desert, Ivanpah, which started construction in October 2010, consists of three plants and spans 3,500 acres of public land.

Achieving this critical “first sync” is a major milestone for the project, which is jointly owned by NRG Energy, BrightSource Energy and Google.

Once fully operational by the end of this year, the 392MW plant, costing $2.2 billion, will generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes annually. The project was primarily financed by a $1.6 billion loan, guaranteed by the US Department of Energy.

A total of 173,500 computer-controlled heliostats, a device that includes a mirror to reflect the sun onto the receiving towers, will heat water to create steam that will drive turbines that produce electricity.

“At Google we invest in renewable energy projects that have the potential to transform the energy landscape. Ivanpah is one of those projects,” said Rick Needham, Director of Energy and Sustainability at Google.

“We’re excited about the project achieving this first sync – a landmark event along the path to completion. Congratulations to the many people who have worked so hard to get this far.”

Power generated from this initial sync testing will go to Pacific Gas and Electric, which has a power purchase agreement (PPA) for energy produced out of the plant’s Unit 1 station.

Power generated from Ivanpah’s Unit 3 station is also sold under a PPA with PG&E, while Unit 2 is under a PPA with Southern California Edison.

Criticism

Controversy reigns over Ivanpah’s impact on the surrounding environment.

In Brightsource’s financial statement to the US Securities and Exchange Commission in April 2011, it acknowledged that two lawsuits, launched in January 2011, said Ivanpah did not comply with various federal requirements, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

In August of this year, the American Tortoise Rescue (ATR) team send complaints to the US Bureau of Land Management over concerns about the impacts of the Ivanpah Project on local wildlife.

In a 2011 Revised Biological Assessment for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the BLM anticipated the loss or significant degradation of 3,520 acres of tortoise habitat and the harm of 57–274 adult tortoises, 608 juveniles, and 236 eggs inside the work area, and 203 adult tortoises and 1,541 juvenile tortoises outside the work area.

ATR said these concerns had forced the developers of the project to hire around 100 biologists and spent $22 million caring for the tortoises on or near the site during construction.

The BLM’s assessment expected that most of the juvenile tortoises on the project will be killed.

Despite the controversy, this successful test and first sync demonstrates the effectiveness of the station’s power tower technology and is expected to increase the amount of solar thermal generation capacity currently installed in the US by over 75%.

“Given the magnitude and complexity of Ivanpah, it was very important that we successfully complete this milestone showing all systems were on track,” said Tom Doyle, President of NRG Solar.

Take the virtual tour of Ivanpah. (Video: Brightsource)

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