Another green energy failure

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Fred Johnson:

Remember Solyndra, the California-based solar company that went bankrupt after receiving $535 million in federal loan guarantees from the Department of Energy? Well, there is now another solar energy project that is in trouble after receiving $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees. That project is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The project is huge. It covers 3500 acres in the Mojave Desert and uses 347,000 mirrors to reflect sunlight to boilers atop two 459-foot towers. The resulting steam drives turbines to create electricity. Each mirror is computer controlled to reflect the sun to the boilers. The calculation is unique for each of the 347,000 mirrors and they must be adjusted every few minutes. The plant is producing only 40 percent of its expected power output. Some of the reasons given are: “The sun isn’t shining as much as expected. Factors such as clouds, jet contrails and weather have had a greater impact on the plant than the owners anticipated.” Problems include getting the thousands of mirrors pointed in precisely the right direction and keeping them clean in the dusty Mojave Desert. Ivanpah requires 32 million gallons of water a year to keep its boilers full and mirrors clean even while California suffers through one of the most severe droughts on record. Operators initially expected to need steam from gas-powered boilers for an hour a day during startup. After operations began, they found they needed to keep boilers running about 4 1/2 hours a day. Additional natural gas is also needed to operate boilers when clouds thicken or to maintain output at the end of the day. The power plant also kills thousands of birds. They die spectacularly in a puff of smoke and leave a smoky trail as they crash into the ground. According to the Associated Press, up to 28,000 birds per year might be incinerated in the focused beams of sunlight, dying at a rate of one bird every two minutes. The power plant does not produce enough electricity to pay off the $1.6 billion loan. Since the designers did not correctly estimate the loss of the sun’s power while traveling through the atmosphere, I suspect they did not consider that when building an uninsulated water tank to absorb reflected sunlight they also are building a steam powered radiator. The radiated heat helps heat up a ball of super-heated air surrounding the boilers. A ball of super-heated, turbulent air will cause the reflected sunlight to shimmer and dance making it impossible to keep the sun focused on the boilers. I think there are lessons to be learned from yet another spectacular failure of a green energy project. One lesson learned is that by eliminating the solar portion and running the plant with natural gas, electricity could be generated 24 hours a day, every day, under any weather condition, 32 million gallons of water and 28,000 birds would be saved every year and taxpayers would be saved from a $1.6 billion loan. Another lesson is that when you consider the energy used to bulldoze and fence-in 3500 acres, build two 46-story towers, manufacture and transport 347,000 garage-door size mirrors to mount on 347,000 platforms, the project likely produced more CO2 than it will save.

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