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No, The Ivanpah Solar Power Plant is Not a Failure--Calm Down.

The thermal solar system used at Ivanpah is innovative, though still faces some challenges.

Chances are you’ve already heard this week’s news about the Ivanpah Solar Power Project and its less-than-stellar, worse than expected performance.

Tongues were sharp as the media offered its take on the project’s shortcomings, with some equating major investors Google, NRG Energy and BrightSource’s application for a $539 million federal loan to help repay the $1.6 billion federal grant funding the project to a “bailout”—a word forever tainted in the American lexicon by the 2008 financial crisis.

The B-Word

"This is an attempt by very large cash generating companies that have billions on their balance sheet to get a federal bailout, i.e. a bailout from us–the taxpayer–for their pet project," Reason Foundation VP of Research Julian Morris told Fox News. "It's actually rather obscene."

Some took issue with the technology present in the project, saying photovoltaic panels and even nuclear energy are more efficient than Ivanpah’s unique thermal solar system.

In his article “Thermal Solar Energy -- Some Technologies Really Are Dumb,” Forbes contributor James Conca expressed his particular distaste for the technology in place at Ivanpah. He believes the thermal solar system costs far too much for such a minute return.

More egregious to Conca is the private sector’s plea for help from the federal government because of thermal solar’s perceived failings, writing that he’s “not sure why these billion-dollar companies need our help paying off a loan of that size.” However, Conca was clear in saying that it wasn’t the loan itself he was unhappy with, citing its purpose as allowing for testing of new technologies such as Ivanpah’s.

“What I don’t like is additional bailouts at our expense,” he explained. “Google, NRG and BrightSource are billion-dollar companies that need to feel their own pain so they don’t build another one of these things. That’s how it’s supposed to work. If we feel the pain for them, they won’t learn.”

Sure, there’s a sticky financial situation these companies find themselves in, but the answer as to why the plant isn’t performing couldn’t be any simpler.

Cloudy Skies

“Factors such as clouds, jet contrails and weather have had a greater impact on the plant than the owners anticipated,” the California Energy Commission said in a statement.

In other words? It’s just not sunny enough.

While Google and NRG were mostly silent on the subject, the third major investor, BrightSource–whose technology largely powers the plant–was quite open about the past and present struggles of Ivanpah.

“As with any new plant, there have been some equipment challenges which impacted plant availability, although we have seen a consistent improvement in performance since the plant went on-line earlier this year,” the company said. “Since the early planning stages of this one-of-a-kind project, we knew there might be some growing pains along the way, but through continued learnings and our ongoing improvement process, the units are performing better than some of our initial assumptions.”

Bad weather and untested tech do not for a good power plant make. Couple that with the project’s increased reliance on natural gas and alleged flash-frying of birds and you’re left with what looks like a big, unfortunate, solar-powered mess.

Realistically, though, is that the case?

In her article “Earth to BrightSource: Give Up, The Media Will Never Get Ivanpah Right,” Tina Casey calls all of these claims crafty spin-doctoring on the part of the anti-renewables media.

“Apparently, Fox characterized the payoff process as a ‘bailout’ in the form of a federal grant,” she writes. “Ivanpah qualifies for a 30% Investment Tax Credit now that it’s operating, and the terms of its loan guarantee require it to use those proceeds to pay down the loan. But, bailout sounds a lot sexier, so how are the story editors supposed to resist that?”
Casey goes on to point out the long-term nature of the project and the unrealistic expectation that a plant based on new, large-scale tech would be at 100 percent operating capacity immediately. She’s not thrilled about the use of natural gas, however.

“Perhaps someday in the sparkling green future Ivanpah will wake up every morning to the tune of renewable biogas from a landfill or a dairy farm or whatever,” she mused, “but in the meantime fossil gas it is.”

What it all comes down to is this: is Ivanpah a failure?

A Sunny Blunder?

The short answer is no, at least not yet.

The Department of Energy loan funding Ivanpah is designed for projects that utilize technologies that are past the experiment stage, but remain untested on a commercial scale. And as NRG spokesman Jeff Holland explained, the four-year ramp-up period for the project was disclosed publicly beforehand and is even outlined in the agreements the plant has with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric.

To call a project dead or failed not even a quarter of the way into its ramp-up period would be rash and shortsighted.

However, the solution for Ivanpah is more complex than just, “It needs to be sunnier!” While the generating potential of the tech is not quite up to snuff, the greatest opportunity for Ivanpah would be the integration of energy storage. That way, the plant could store energy when it’s sunny and use it when it’s not.

Overall, Brightsource remains confident as it looks overseas for more business, still insisting the project will produce energy enough to be competitive here at home.

“We remain confident that over time the sun at Ivanpah will be more than sufficient for the plant to meet its expected performance targets,” the company’s statement said.

Right now, the project’s ultimate future is rather uncertain, though the parties involved–especially Brightsource–seem optimistic. To call it a failure now would be like landing a plane before it even gets off the ground. 

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