If you ever take a trip to California’s Mojave Desert, you’ll be treated to some otherworldly views of the desert landscape. The rolling hills, surreal mixes of ambers and browns, and barren landscape give viewers the impression that you’ve driven straight onto the surface of an alien planet.
Located in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Mojave Desert is dry, unforgiving, and can get incredibly hot. Indeed, it feels like a completely different world from the lush alpine forests of the Sierra Nevadas. However, if there’s one feature of the Mojave that really makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a Ray Bradbury novel, it’s the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility.
Recently, I got on a Flixbus from Los Angeles that was headed toward Las Vegas. As the bus departed in the dark hours of the morning, I spent a good portion of the ride fast asleep. However, when the hot desert sun rose over the Mojave, my eyelids crept open just in time to see three massive towers with beacons of light at the tops.
The towers were visible from miles away, giving me ample time to wonder what the hell they were before actually getting close enough to inspect their features. As the bus drove past them, I noticed that each tower was surrounded by what appeared to be fields of fragmented glass, as if broken mirrors were sprawling out around them.
These broken mirrors appeared to be alive and moving while the light towers above them seemed to be sending signals to an inbound alien race. Was I still dreaming or was I really just driven into the middle of a sci-fi movie?
Curious as all hell, I waited until I had reception and started furiously typing searches into Google to try to find out what I had just seen. It didn’t take me long. The structures we’d just driven past were the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, a government-backed solar facility that was supposed to revolutionize the energy industry.
Instead, it has pretty much only led to a great deal of backlash, financial loss, environmental degradation, and regret amongst everyone who was involved. In this article, I’ll examine what exactly the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility was meant to do, and everything that’s gone wrong with it since it’s construction.
The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility Concept
Construction of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility began in 2013 and the facility officially opened on February 13, 2014. When it opened, it was the world’s largest solar thermal power station. The facility cost around $2.2 billion to complete and the groups behind the project were Oakland-based BrightSource Energy and San Francisco-based Bechtel.
The main funding for the project came from NRG Energy which contributed $300 million and Google which contributed $168 million. The project also had overwhelming support from the United States government, which provided a $1.6 billion loan guarantee and approved the project to be built on public land.
The facility was built at the base of Clark Mountain in California, just across the border from Primm, Nevada. The tract of land spans 4,000 acres which are covered in large moving mirrors called heliostats.
Each of the 173,500 heliostats corresponds to one of the three 459-foot towers and they move according to the position of the sun to reflect light beams up to the top of the towers. These light beams then generate heat which boils water contained within the towers.
This water then turns into steam which turns steam turbines and generates electricity. As the plants themselves have no ability to actually store electricity, the power is routed directly to receivers which supply power to PG&E and Southern California Edison electric companies.
Fossil Fuel Use
While Ivanpah was supposed to be the future of clean energy, it seems that the rate at which it burns fossil fuel might actually outweigh any environmental benefits of solar power production.
Each morning, to get the operation started, the towers will burn natural gas to fuel the heliostats and allow them to start reflecting sunlight towards the towers. In 2014 alone, the facility emitted 46,084 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is nearly double the pollution threshold that other power facilities in the state of California are required to adhere to by the state’s cap and trade program.
However, it seems that Ivanpah was actually more fuel-efficient than combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants, the most commonly used type of power plant for generating electricity.
If the same amount of natural gas were used in a CCGT power plant, it would have only generated about a quarter of the electricity produced by Ivanpah. Unfortunately, Ivanpah did not even come close to living up to its expected output in its first year of operation.
In 2014, the facility was only producing about 40% of its expected capacity. Fortunately, that number improved to about 97% in 2015. So, when it comes down to Ivanpah’s ability to produce electricity, it would seem it was a decent investment. However, there are some other factors involved that should be taken into account as well.
Ivanpah Solar Power Facility has had some adverse effects on its surrounding ecological systems since it was built. In fact, as far back as 2010, the size of the project was scaled back due to concerns about how it might affect the desert tortoise population, an animal that is listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
In an effort to protect these desert tortoise populations, a large fence was built around Ivanpah to keep the tortoises from wandering in and being burned by the light beams. This fence, however, may be doing more harm than good.
Roadrunner populations around Ivanpah Solar Power Facility are being quickly depleted as the birds, who can only maintain flight for under a minute, get trapped within the fence and are then quickly killed by coyotes.
The coyotes have learned to scavenge the fence for helpless roadrunners, which has resulted in roadrunner populations shrinking and the ecological balance of the area being thrown off. Roadrunners aren’t the only birds being negatively affected by the facility, though.
On any given day at Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, you might see small bursts of fire in the air around the three towers. This phenomenon, which has become known as “streamers” by the employees of the facility, is caused by birds being burned by the intense radiation produced by the heliostats.
This part of the Mojave Desert has long been a refuge for birds making their way across the Pacific Flyway, and it’s estimated that up to 6,000 birds are killed every year by the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, some of them endangered species such as peregrine falcons and barn owls.
Another concern related to the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is its potential to create fires. In May of 2016, a fire shut down the Unit 3 tower when a heliostat became misaligned and reflected sunlight onto a part of the tower that was not designed to receive sunlight.
While the only negative result of this incident was that production was heavily reduced for a few days, it certainly seems like cause for concern because of its potential to create wildfires.
As wildfires are currently ravaging the state of California and causing harmful effects to people and the environment, it hurts to imagine what damage another fire at Ivanpah could potentially do. Luckily, there have been any fires at the facility since 2016.