A Free-Market Energy Blog

Central Station Solar: Ivanpah Fail ($2.2 billion bust)

By Stanislav Jakuba -- April 6, 2016

“The 2200 million dollars per 120 million watts represents an 18 dollars per watt ($/W) investment. By way of comparison, another nonpolluting source of electricity, nuclear power plant, the Millstone reactor No. 2 in Connecticut, operating at 880 MW since 1975, cost 0.5 $/W, making Ivanpah 36 times more expensive (inflation excluded).”

The newest and largest solar power plant in Mojave Desert has completed its second year of operation. The news is not good–and, in fact, very bad.


This type of power plant generates electricity by concentrating sun rays on a “boiler” making high pressure, high temperature steam that drives a turbine generator. The generator machinery is identical to that common in the fossil-fuel and nuclear plants, except that it has provisions for the every-day shut-down at dusk and restart with the rising sun.

Usually called Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants, that term was coined to distinguish them from the Solar Thermal Power (STP) intended for direct heating such as in warming swimming pool water.

Concentrating Solar Power

CSP plants were promoted by the Department of Energy from the time DOE was created under President Carter. Several were built over the decades and none performed adequately. One burned up in 1986 and was rebuilt, enlarged, DOE arguing that the plants have to be big to take advantage of economy of scale.

Following that logic, this latest 392 MW (name-plate) giant was built on 13 km2 of land in Mojave Desert at a cost of 2.2 billion dollars. It generated a disappointing .4 billion kWh thus producing at an average rate of 46 MW the first year.

[Note: It is typical for renewable energy projects to show different units for input, rated output and actual output. This practice makes performance and efficiency comparisons cumbersome, and is therefore not pursued, allowing misinformation to flourish. In the above paragraph, the former value is in “W” but the latter in “Wh.” The author wishes that such reporting use the same unit (W, as with the 392 MW and 46 MW above) or it states, as an example, “…. the plant has been producing 12 % of its name-plate power.”]

Dissecting the Failure

Rather than focusing on the poor performance of the Ivanpah, the following text and numbers show how the planned-for performance, capital and operational expenses and earnings compare with another power plant. The predicted Capacity Factor of 31 percent indicates a 120 MW expected actual average output. That is the number worked with below.

The 2200 million dollars per 120 million watts represents an 18 dollars per watt ($/W) investment. By way of comparison, another nonpolluting source of electricity, nuclear power plant, the Millstone reactor No. 2 in Connecticut, operating at 880 MW since 1975, cost 0.5 $/W, making Ivanpah is thus 36 times more expensive (inflation excluded).

With about 1000 employees receiving salary and benefits, the annual outlay for that alone is roughly $100 million. Selling the annual 3.8 EJ at the projected 0.028 $/MJ yields $106 million. Ouch — only $6 million is left for other expenses, notably for natural gas whose burning produces 8 percent or more of the total output.

For comparison again, the Millstone nuclear plant complex employs also about 1000, and its two reactors have been producing 1870 MW actual electrical output. Assuming the same salaries, benefits, and the electricity selling price, the operating expense is 15 times higher at Ivanpah.

Note that the above two outlays are 35 and 15 times higher, and that this huge discrepancy exists in an industry where a difference of a few percent means the difference between success and bankruptcy. The magnitude of the discrepancy hints also at the reason why the “free” solar electricity is so expensive. [1]

As for the occupied land comparison, those 120 MW spread over 13 km2 represents 9.2 W/m2. In contrast, ground based nuclear plants produce some 2000 W/m2 thus utilizing the land area some 200 times more effectively. And they can be erected in any climate and in proximity to users.

It should be pointed out again, that these dreadfully unfavorable ratios apply to a plant delivering its planned-for output. In the first two years the plant delivered only 1/3rd of the assumed 100 percent. The already “bad” ratios are actually three times worse than those calculated here.

We must be either very rich or very ignorant to be building power sources of the type that produce power we cannot afford. If the purpose of the CSPs is to cut CO2 emissions, that expectation is unrealistic. The construction, operating, maintaining and eventually dismantling this plant will at best match the amount of CO2 claimed to be saved in non-burning fossil-fuels for that relatively small amount of electricity. And producing intermittent electricity causes CO2 generation elsewhere.

And there are other items to consider with respect to the net output and CO2. It was not apparent from the description whether the electric output was measured at the outlet from the generators (or transformers) or whether it was that output minus the electrical demand on the grid for electricity consumed from dusk to dawn in the plant, such as for lighting, air-conditioning, washing mirrors, water pumping, restarting machinery, etc.

The plant also burns gasoline, diesel fuel and, prodigiously, natural gas. These considerations should be included in the performance data for the net electricity delivered and CO2 saved. Perhaps they will be available someday.

Concerning the DOE covering the invested billions, it was not just tax- and rate-payers who paid. Google, among others, invested millions from its “green” fund, the same Google that abandoned its own PV solar facility and related R&D last year (2014).


[1] In the summer of 2015 the wholesale price was 2.0 cents per kWh in New England, a region with the highest rate in the US at this time. And those two cents cover also taxes, debt-servicing, dividend payments, etc. and provide profit.

Note: You might be curious to know how efficient the Ivanpah plant is in utilizing solar insolation (irradiation). With the annual average of 180 W/m2 in the sun-rays’ heat in that location spread over the 2.5 km2 area of just the heliostat mirrors, the input power is 450 MW. Based on the above 120 MW output, the efficiency is then almost 27 percent. PV plants by comparison utilize 220 W/m2 in that location and so would theoretically procure more power at the same efficiency level. They also occupy a fraction of the ground area CPS necessitates for equal output because the mirrors must be surrounded by open area on all sides to avoid shade when tilting to follow the sun.


  1. Ed Reid  

    Ivanpah is, however, a very successful “rapid raptor roaster”.


  2. Tom Tanton  

    There are good reasons for distinguishing capacity from energy (MW v MWh) especially when it comes to reliably maintaining the grid on peak demand hours (a function of capacity not energy.) I agree that renewable advocates usually take advantage and/or abuse the public’s mis-understanding of the two concepts, but we should focus on the disastrous less than 5% capacity value for wind and acknowledge the better-than-many capacity correlation of CSP and let the economics reveal themselves.


    • Stan Jakuba  

      I am missing your point. Please name the “good” reason.
      In my view, if the plant is rated in W at 100 % capacity (utilization) factor, why is it rated in Wh at its actual CF? I do not get it aside from the fact that how it is usually done. I need a better reason. Stan


    • Stan Jakuba  

      Please name the “good” reason.
      In my view, if a power plant is rated in W at 100 % capacity (utilization) factor, why to rate it in Wh for its actual output? I do not get it aside from the fact that is how it is usually done. I need a better reason. Stan


  3. Mark Krebs  

    Here’s a marketing slogan for dealing with the bird supply problem: “tastes like chicken.”

    Either way, it would be useful to show the math. I think the traditional term-of-art is load factor; or at least that’s the term I was taught and my preference for explaining things like this.


  4. Ivanpah showing its worth  

    […] Jakuba takes a look at the numbers: Central Station Solar: Ivanpah Fail. It’s one of those solar efforts where the economy of scale was supposed to produce effective […]


  5. US Renewable Statistics: Real vs. Potential Output - Master Resource  

    […] up to one tenth of the power output is drawn from those external energy sources. As an example, a central station solar (concentrated) facility in the Mojave desert drew about 9% of its output from the grid and from burning natural gas, diesel fuel, propane, and […]


  6. Energy–renewable sources and thermodynamics  

    […] According to a source on the internet, the construction cost of the Ivanpah facility was $2.2 billion dollars, which is $18 per watt of capacity. In comparison, a similar capacity nuclear power plant had an inflation-adjusted construction cost that worked out to $0.50 per watt of capacity, making Ivanpah 36 times more expensive.” Ivanpah is not producing enough revenue from sale of electricity to pay its operating costs. […]


  7. Rodney Mouton  

    Solar and wind were promoted by the federal government as environmentally-friendly renewable sources of electricity. However, when taking into consideration the tens of thousands of acres of habitat for threatened and endangered species, and the direct impact to those species, we are led to think that there are other reasons the the government and social engineering tech companies subsidized these projects at taxpayer and consumer expense.

    The footprint of Ivanpah may bb 6,000 acres, but the footprint of the electrical distribution infrastructure left over ten thousand acres devoid of life. Not a blade of grass was left during construction, and the continues use of herbicides makes the obliteration of life permanent. “Relocating” the T&E species into surrounding areas stresses the habitats of the target areas to the point of diminishing the very species we are legally bound to protect.

    Building tortoise fences along roadways to keep them from the dangers of vehicles only serves to concentrate them along these areas to make them easy prey for coyotes and ravens that devastate younger tortoises. I was a supervisory biologist for the agency on which most of these projects reside, but because I didn’t support the “team” who had the expectation that I direct by resource employees to lie about the “overwhelming benefits” of commercial-scale renewable projects while the fragile desert resources were being permanently obliterated, I was encouraged into early retirement.

    These projects are all about power; but when the federal government, foreign corporations, and google all partner up and use your dollars to continue to build these, knowing that the cost-benefit doesn’t add up, the primary power goes to relieve us of our incomes and eventually our freedoms.


  8. Homer Azarbarzin  

    The annual output of the system is 729 giga watt (729,000,000,000 watt). Therefore per hour it produces 729,000,000,000/365days/24 hours = 83,000,000 watt hour. A conventional coal, gas or nuclear plant produces 1000,000,000 watt hour at a cost of less than $ 4 trillions. This system produces 1/12th as much and has cost $ 2.2 billions. Further, it would take an idiot to put a stamp of approval on a project that requires 150,000 motors turn the mirrors in the direction of the sun day in and day out. They have already had an explosion because one of the motors had malfunctioned and reflected the sun on the electrical panels. They have to use natural gas for four hours every day to keep the boilers ready for the next day.


  9. James scott  

    The idea of saving the earth has no conception of the economics nor does it matter. Regardless of the cost saving some obscure bird, fish, plant or animal supersedes the cost to users. Blue sky ideas never pay off. If the money spent on Ivanpah had been invested in research for the environmental solutions to coal ash difficulties there could have been found a use for the single most abundant source of energy in the world for eternities of the Earth’s future.


  10. Sean bryant-smith  

    Australian politicians talk about solar power as if the technology has surpassed hydro or coal fired power. Mainstream media likewise. Its fanciful to think base load power can be produced by solar. Ivanpah is great example of failure in every aspect of such development. Nowhere in world base load power is produced by solar. Beggers belief solar energy be referred as anything less than a concept that can’t be developed here & now.


  11. George Breckenridge  

    Ivanpah is full of ware parts, did I see portable cables laying on the desert floor? The Bell System had a few tons of paper documents discussing many surprises as to what fails in the outside plant. Bugs drilling holes in outside cables, UV rotting things, and bacteria clouding things and generating corrosive soups.

    I will always remember Amonix, all the fanfare, and then the silence. If you’re involved in concentrated PV, make your money upfront, and let others make the promises.

    A person can learn a bunch by studying auto headlights, the environment normally degrades them to the point of required replacement when it’s you that pays to replace them. The outdoors is a hostile environment, and a lot of CPV ideas get validated inside a clean and dry Lab? Do you really need to spend this kind of money on a proof of concept?


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