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The world's largest solar farm, Ivanpah, recently opened to fanfare and criticism in the dusty California desert. It could signal the beginning of a new type of energy production — or remain fated to be the last plant of its kind.
We covered the changing landscape of alternative energy in a Feb. 19 hour, and our guest Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times explained just how huge the Ivanpah plant really is and why birds are only kind of burning up in the Mojave Desert.
Tom Ashbrook: Joining me first today from Los Angeles is Julie Cart, environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She’s been watching the huge solar Ivanpah Plant go up for years now. She was at the big solar array when they flipped the switch last week. Julie Cart, thank you very much for being with us today.
Julie Cart: Good to be with you, Tom.
TA: Hey, if we were standing there – I don’t know where you stand when this thing turns on, watch out, you don’t get your feathers singed – but if were standing somewhere near looking at this, what’s the setting, and what does it look like, Julie?
JC: It’s set in a valley, right up against a low string of hills, and right next to the freeway that takes holidaymakers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. So, it’s a bit of a distraction but not for people who are going to the slots. It’s sitting in a valley, as your listeners heard, it’s five square miles of mirrors. Three hundred sixty thousand garage-door sized mirrors that are in three different fields, these concentric rings around a tall tower. A critic of it described them to me as the Eye of Mordor. They reflect the sun’s power and energy to a 459-foot tower on top that has a boiler filled with water and creates steam and turns turbines.
TA: That’s been described as a 40-story tower, that’s a huge array, that’s a big tower. And enough to light up 140,000 homes as you say. Who owns it?
JC: It’s owned by a consortium of companies. Brightsource Energy, which is the company that designed the propriety type of plant; Bechtel, which built it; NRG, which put in the $300, a big fossil fuel company; and Google, which put in $168 million in it. And you might argue that the American people own a part of it, because it was a $2.2 billion project that was funded with $1.6 billion in Federal loan guarantees.
TA: So it was a big Federal input here, to help get this thing off the ground. Would it have been built without the Federal loan? Was that critical to this whole deal?
JC: It was absolutely critical, and that was something that all of the executives made note of last week at the opening, looking, tipping their hat to the Secretary of Energy saying, ‘Thank you very much!’ It was absolutely critical. The ground is changing underneath the feet of all these renewable energy technologies, global downturn in the economy in this country. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the financing, and without that money, it never would have happened.
TA: The Energy Secretary was there last week when this huge array, Ivanpah, was lit up for the first time. Is the Federal Government still funding big solar thermal projects like this? There’s been talk that this may be the last built in the United States.
JC: The big days of doling out big money are pretty much over. There’s still some funding, but nothing on the order of what we’ve seen in the last four, five years. There’s very little appetite on Capitol Hill to extend these programs. And the thing that’s really gonna kill them is an investment tax credit that expires in 2016. The thinking is — I did a story on this a couple of weeks ago – that these large scale, these utility scale solar plants, these ginormous ones, 360 million kilowatts, are not likely to continue to be built on the landscape. For example, in California, where we have very rigorous requirements for renewables, as many states do, we’re on line to meet those. So, why would publicly-owned utilities pay more money for expensive renewable energy power when as you might discuss later in your program, natural gas is really filling the void? So these large scale plants are not likely to be built with the expectations that had been, and it’s not over for renewables, but I think that it’s gonna be filled in a lot by distributive generation, rooftop, smaller-scale projects in wind and everything else. As they like to say in the administration, ‘All of the Above.’ And I think that’s really how the grid will get this power from lots of different sources. It’s not one thing.
TA: Speaking of all of the above: birds, and the fate of birds in the way of all this heat coming up from all those hundreds of thousands of mirrors have received some attention. What’s going on there?
JC: Well, you asked what the field looks like. You could walk through the field, and there’s no heat at all, other than the tremendous heat you have for the Mojave Desert. Unlike PV, which absorbs heat, these things reflect it. And each one is controlled by individual GPS and computers, it’s highly technical, super sophisticated. So all of these mirrors are focused in a place, which is this boiler. Some, however, are in a kind of holding pattern, they don’t need all of that reflective energy all the time. So they focus at a point in space, a safe point, a little reflective halo, that’s what the birds fly through. There’s a vapor steam plume that comes off of these boilers, it’s a thousand degrees and more that this steam is, so they fly through that. There are birds that perceive this field of mirrors as a lake and they try to land on it. That’s a fatal error. Most of these birds are protected by a number of environmental laws, and that’s being investigated. It happens to be a plant that people say, ‘Oh it’s in the middle in the desert!’ Well, there’s a number of protected, endangered and threatened species, plants and animals out there, and this company had to build a $50 million fence to protect the desert tortoise that lives out there. So they put themselves in a pretty environmentally sensitive spot. It’s also the best spot, these companies believe, to generate that energy.
TA: They found dozens of dead birds, we’ll see how that angle plays out, but the power is online. Julie Cart, thank you very much for taking us there, we see it in our mind’s eye.
JC: Wear your sunglasses when you see it in your mind’s eye.