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Category — Solar power

Bird Vaporization at Ivanpah: Solar Enters Wind Territory

“After several studies, the conclusion for why birds are drawn to the searing beams of the solar field goes like this: Insects are attracted to the bright light of the reflecting mirrors, much as moths are lured to a porch light. Small birds — insect eaters such as finches, swallows and warblers — go after the bugs. In turn, predators such as hawks and falcons pursue the smaller birds.

But once the birds enter the focal field of the mirrors, called the “solar flux,” injury or death can occur in a few seconds. The reflected light from the mirrors is 800 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Either the birds are incinerated in flight; their feathers are singed, causing them to fall to their deaths; or they are too injured to fly and are killed on the ground by predators, according to a report by the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory.”

- David Danelski, Solar: Ivanpah Solar Described as Deadly Trap for Wildlife,” Riverside-Press Enterprise, April 8, 2014.

The slaughter of birds caught in the revolving blades of wind energy turbines has grabbed national attention lately. But even more pernicious is the nearly invisible vaporizing of birds that fly into the new Ivanpah solar mirror project in California’s Mojave Desert seeking to feed on the insects that are drawn to the light of the reflecting mirrors.

Ivanpah is the largest solar thermal mirror project in the world encompassing 4,000 acres of land and 347,000 heliostat mirrors focused on three 450-foot high towers.  377 megawatts of electricity is generated by a conventional steam turbine from concentrated heat from the mirrors.  Solar thermal mirror energy plants are actually hybrid solar-natural gas power plants.

Counting bird deaths may be accurate for wind farms. But counting dead birds on the ground from solar mirror projects may be a highly inaccurate way to measure the impacts on the entire ecological food chain. That is because many birds are vaporized in mid air and often there is no trace left of them. Investigators call these “streamers,” referring to the momentary puffs of smoke as birds are vaporized. Here is how it is described: [Read more →]

May 7, 2014   3 Comments

California Wineries Don’t Need Pricey ‘Green’ Power (1.6 or 7.1 cent/kWh?)

Bill Roberts, economist for the Bay Area Economic Forum, warned in a 2007 study on the municipalization of local power purchases and generation in California:

If Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) operates any retained generation and Sonoma Clean Power purchases 100% of its power supply in the competitive market, Sonoma cannot avoid higher average electricity rates than PG&E unless it subsidizes rates (or someone wins the gamble of ‘beating the market’). [page 13, paraphrased for clarity].

Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) officials and advocates were whooping it up with recent news that some 94 percent of its electricity customers had “chosen” to drop service from investor-owned utility Pacific Gas and Electric. Instead electricity customers would be transferred to its new municipal electric utility beginning in May (see Energy News Data, March 28). But Sonoma County electric ratepayers may want to think a second time about automatically “opting in” to the program.

Background

Sonoma County is located north of San Francisco Bay and enjoys frontage along the Pacific Ocean. Sonoma County is considered part of California’s wine country including Napa and Mendocino Counties.

Sonoma Clean Power is a new municipal electric utility created under the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) law in California. This allows cities to disconnect from having to buy power from PG&E and purchase their own power, or build their own new clean power plants. All customers are automatically transferred to the new city owned-utility unless they want to choose to opt out. PG&E would continue to handle billings, maintenance, and transmission and distribution of electricity.

The justification for creating Sonoma Clean Power is that it can deliver cheaper, cleaner power to customers than PG&E. [Read more →]

April 23, 2014   1 Comment

Solar Land Blues: The Eco Reality of Dilute Energy

“As citizens, we need to call on our leaders to make thoughtful choices about where to site industrial-scale development and renewable energy projects, and to create a legacy for our national parks and to public lands everywhere.” - Mark Butler, “Saving the Mojave from the Solar Threat,” Los Angeles Times , March 25, 2014. “‘Soft’ energy sources are horribly land intensive…. The greenest possible strategy is to mine and to bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green.” - Peter Huber, Hard Green; Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 107–108.

Hard-green energies (fossil fuels, uranium) have a major ecological advantage over politically-correct soft energy (wind, solar): less infrastructure requirement, including land. This was recognized by the father of energy economics, William Stanley Jevons, in his 1865 tome, The Coal Question. Mainstream environmentalists are waking up to the problems of central-station solar now that they can physically see it and have operational results. California’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) is “the world’s largest gas-fired power plant (largest in physical size, not gas consumption),” said one eco-critic. And now Mark Butler in the Los Angeles Times has blown the whistle on the national showcase of Big Solar (full op-ed below). [Read more →]

April 7, 2014   No Comments

Big Solar: Big Gas (Ivanpah’s ‘dirty power’)

“It has been lauded as the world’s largest solar power plant, but the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) could also be called the world’s largest gas-fired power plant (largest in physical size, not gas consumption).”

Chris Clarke continues in his piece, “Ivanpah Solar Plant Owners Want to burn a Lot More Natural Gas” (KCET, March 27, 2014):

Each of the 4,000-acre facility’s three units has gas-fired boilers used to warm up the fluid in the turbines in the early morning, to keep that fluid at an optimum temperature during the night, and to boost production during the day when the sun goes behind a cloud…. Solar Partners says that in order for ISEGS (Ivanpah) to operate at full efficiency, the plant’s gas-fired auxiliary boilers will need to run an average of 4.5 hours a day, rather than the one hour a day originally expected. The plant’s total CO2 footprint from burning natural gas would rise to just above 92,200 tons per year, approximately equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas output of 16,500 average passenger cars.

The newly operational Ivanpah solar thermal electric power megaplant in California’s Mojave Desert was controversial before it was ever built for bird kills, desert tortoise impacts, and a 161% higher cost than coal-fired power plants. Now, with data coming in, it is becoming more controversial. Environmentalists, energy experts, and political decision-makers may soon ask how they were we sold a bad bill of goods.

One month after start up in February 2014, commercial airline pilots started filing complaints with the F.A.A. about the massive glare from Ivanpah’s 173,500 heliostat-mirrors used to radiate heat toward a central tower to drive a steam turbine.

Soon after the initial plant start-up it was also reportedly discovered the so-called clean power plant would emit 55% more greenhouse gases than it claimed in its original operating permit and environmental report, the equivalent of 16,500 cars. And this does not include all of the GHG emissions associated with the plant’s infrastructure and construction. [Read more →]

April 2, 2014   14 Comments

$5.4 Billion in Solar: California Goes All In

“The government support — which includes loan guarantees, cash grants and contracts that require electric customers to pay higher rates — largely eliminated the risk to the private investors and almost guaranteed them large profits for years to come. The beneficiaries include financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, conglomerates like General Electric, utilities like Exelon and NRG — even Google.”

- Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss, “A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search,” New York Times, November 11, 2011.

A recent article by Pete Danko, “Solar Power Hitting New Records in California” (Earthechling.com) documents the dramatic growth of solar energy generation facilities in California. Three large-scale solar PV installations recently on-line or underway are: California Valley Solar Ranch; Antelope Valley Solar 1, and Topaz Solar Farm, together representing a nameplate capacity of over 1,000 megawatts (1 gigawatt).

Because of their size and cost, it is worthwhile to take a look at these three facilities in greater detail: [Read more →]

January 13, 2014   13 Comments

California Valley Solar Ranch: What for $1.24 Taxpayer Billion?

“One acre or 1,500 acres? 88 percent capacity factor or 22 percent? Less than $1,500,000 per megawatt of capacity or $6,400,000 per megawatt? Location near the customer load or remote? Highly dispatchable electricity or non-dispatchable? Do we need to really ask these questions.”

The huge California Valley Solar Ranch (CVSR) central-station solar plant is apparently now at “full power” thanks to a loan guarantee from the U.S. taxpayers of $1,237,000,000. Information regarding this project has been published here by Earthtechling, and also here, by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In an earlier article by Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss in the New York Times entitled A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search, the full cost of the project was established as $1.6 billion. Lipton and Krauss indicate:

The project is also a marvel in another, less obvious way: Taxpayers and ratepayers are providing subsidies worth almost as much as the entire $1.6 billion cost of the project. Similar subsidy packages have been given to 15 other solar- and wind-power electric plants since 2009.

 The government support — which includes loan guarantees, cash grants and contracts that require electric customers to pay higher rates — largely eliminated the risk to the private investors and almost guaranteed them large profits for years to come. The beneficiaries include financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, conglomerates like General Electric, utilities like Exelon and NRG — even Google.

A Critical Appraisal

In a realistic appraisal of the CVSR we should note the following: [Read more →]

November 7, 2013   19 Comments

Rooftop Solar: Grievous Grid Economics

“It’s these subsidies and unfair billing credits–coupled with the intermittent nature of solar energy–that has utilities, utility customers, and taxpayers questioning the expansion of solar power. Until the solar industry can effectively operate in a free market and not burden consumers who cannot or choose not to install rooftop solar, this debate will continue.”

Solar power generation in the U.S. rose nearly 600% from 2000 to 2010 (NREL), and this trend is continuing. Fueled by an array of federal, state and local subsidies along with utility-bill credits, the economics of photovoltaic (PV) energy might seem too good to pass up. This is especially the case with residential or rooftop solar systems.

However, a closer look at industry subsidization, the unique properties of PV, and controversial billing practices for solar users, such as Net Metering, show that solar power is not as great a deal as its supporters would have you believe.

Economics of Rooftop Solar

For homeowners looking to add solar panels to their rooftops, there is no shortage of handouts to help make this possible. First, there is a 30 percent Investment Tax Credit from the federal government, in place until 2016. If not used completely at the time of installation, this credit can be carried over for up to five years. On top of that, state, local and utility specific programs sweeten the deal. These programs vary greatly by location. [Read more →]

September 30, 2013   5 Comments

Dominion Virginia’s “Green” Solar Program: Bad Economics for a Misplaced Cause

“[T]here is no companion prerequisite that such renewable programs be cost-effective or deliver reliable power…. This program appears designed for the privileged few to enjoy a subsidized electric energy existence, provides those ‘green bragging rights’ mentioned by a solar installer in this courtroom last September, but little else.”

Last May, Dominion Virginia Power petitioned the Virginia State Corporation Commission to introduce a voluntary ratepayer program to support up to 3 MW from distributed solar installations. Dominion seeks to offer the public an alternative to an existing, net-metering, residential solar panel program. This voluntary test Solar Panel Program would be guaranteed for five years at a “buy all/sell all” $0.15/kWh. It would be limited to an initial maximum scale of 0.2 percent of 2010 peak load.

Solar is an intermittent power source that would require storage to be on a stand-alone basis. The Dominion program offers a solar energy buyback on a firm (non-interrupted) basis, which requires cross subsidization from conventional energies.

The $0.15/kWh price is below what the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates to be the cost of distributed solar, which is north of $0.25/kWh. Multiple tax breaks explain the difference ($0.022/kWh production tax credit; accelerated depreciation, etc.). Solar executive David Bergeron has estimated that the as much as 90 percent of lifecycle solar costs are hidden, due to special government subsidies. [Read more →]

February 27, 2013   4 Comments

Italy’s Solar Bust: Just Another Data Point

“Intermittent generation may be consistent with a liberalized market, as long as generators are required to bear all the direct and indirect costs of their production. Otherwise, competition is doomed to become an irrelevant feature of a system that becomes more and more politically driven.”

Can an intermittent source be integrated into a liberalized electricity market?

Yes, it is technically feasible, but no otherwise. If subsidies enter into play, intermittent generation might undermine the very design of the market. This is what happened in Italy with the boom of solar power, which last year alone skyrocketed from 3.47 GW to 12.75 GW, with the annual cost of subsidies increasing from 800 million euro in 2010 to 3.9 billion euro in 2011 (about $975 million to $4.75 billion at today’s exchange rate).

These very generous incentives (which have been cut back in the last year for complex legal reasons) led to an over-investment in solar power in the country.

Perfect Storm” for Malinvestment

Italy’s perfect storm of so little electricity at so much cost had three causes: [Read more →]

July 20, 2012   5 Comments

Solar is Not An Infant Industry (Part II: Twentieth Century)

“The range of energy possibilities grouped under the heading ‘solar’ could meet one-fifth of U.S. energy needs within two decades.”

- Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin, “The End of Easy Oil,” in Stobaugh and Yergin, eds., Energy Future, Report of the Energy Project of the Harvard Business School (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 12.

”I think … the consensus … is after the year 2000, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of our energy could come from solar technologies, quite easily.”

  – Scott Sklar, Solar Energy Industries Association (1987).

“Before maybe the end of this decade, I see wind and solar being cost-competitive without subsidy with new fossil fuel.”

- DOE Secretary Stephan Chu, Address to Pew Charitable Trusts, March 23, 2011.

Yesterday’s Part I on the long history of solar power ended with two quotations from energy historian Wilson Clark in his 1974 book, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction:

“In 1908, [Frank] Shuman formed the Sun Power Company and convinced English financiers to back his efforts to build larger plants using the flat-plate collectors. In 1911, he demonstrated a plant in Philadelphia with more than 10,000 feet of collector surface. It produced 816 pounds of steam per hour and was used to operate a steam-driven water pump” (p. 365).

“Between the turn of the century and the 1930s in the United States, the first widespread commercial use of solar energy came into being with the installation of solar water heaters in California and Florida. . . . Tens of thousands of these heaters were sold in both states until the middle 1950s” (p. 370).

The rest of the century would be the story of certain tried-and-true applications (water heaters), a lot of better-but-not-nearly-good-enough technological progress, and hype and failure in the political energy era (1970s-to-present).

1930s Solar [Read more →]

March 22, 2012   6 Comments