A Free-Market Energy Blog

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

By Wayne Lusvardi -- April 2, 2014

“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.

With a number of other large solar projects queuing up behind Ivanpah to locate nearby, the result could be just exporting Los Angeles’s air pollution to nearby Las Vegas 35-miles away, the Lake Mead Recreation Area, and the Mojave Desert National Reserve.

Ivanpah is unofficially designed to replace so-called “dirty” coal-fired power plants of the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and the Intermountain Power Plant in Utah that both serve the Los Angeles area.

Although Ivanpah would reduce relative overall regional air pollution, it would just shift some of that pollution from remote areas in Arizona and Utah to the outskirts of the higher-populated area of Las Vegas.

Is it surprising to find that Ivanpah had to increase its emissions to reach maximum productivity?

Ivanpah Surprised by Need for Greater Gas-Fired Power?

The Bechtel Corporation, touts it had 60-years of experience in renewable energy plant engineering design, construction and start-up services, including “deploying concentrated solar thermal (both trough and tower) technology,” before starting up Ivanpah in February 2014. Under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1990’s, Bechtel was involved in Solar Project Two, a 10 MW, concentrated solar thermal power plant project in California’s Mojave Desert that pilot tested molten nitrate salt technology.

The tower and power plant elements of the previous “Solar One” solar thermal power plant were lost due to a fire on August 31, 1986 when 240,000 gallons of heat transfer oil caught fire (see Howard C. Hayden, A Primer on Renewable Energy Technology, 2009, p. 120). The plant was rebuilt as “Solar Two.”

It is thus surprising that FirstSolar, Ivanpah’s operator, has had to apply to the California Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board to increase the running time for its gas-fired auxiliary boilers from one-hour to five-hours per day, out of a potential 12-hour period of solar insolation.

In the application for an amendment to air quality conditions, Ivanpah’s operator First Solar states “the only way to fully understand how the systems work has been through the experience of operating power plants. Petitioner first became aware of the need to increased annual fuel use after the completion of construction and commencement of commercial operations, which began in December 2013.”

It is hard to believe that Ivanpah was not aware of the need for greater use of natural gas-fired power to pre-heat up its ancillary boilers before each day, especially given Bechtel’s past experience. The issue of air quality had been raised as far back as 2010.

Air Quality Issue Raised Back in 2010

Back on April 26, 2010, Las Vegas Sun newspaper writer Stephanie Tavares titled her story on the potential degradation of air quality from solar power plants: “New Wave of Solar Plants Could Worsen Air Quality.” Tavares wrote:

“But the most popular type of industrial solar technology (thermal solar) has a dirty little secret: Many of these plants are not emission-free.

Solar thermal plants concentrate the sun’s heat to boil salt water or oil to run a steam turbine. The technology is more popular for large-scale energy generation than photovoltaics, which convert the sun’s rays directly into electricity. Solar thermal creates more electricity for the investment and has the potential to store the heat to create electricity at times when photovoltaic can’t, such as at night or when the sun is blocked by clouds. The problem is some solar thermal power plants release greenhouse gases and particulates into the air.”

In 2010, Ivanpah reported it would only emit 33-tons of carbon dioxide per year according to Tavares’ report. But Ivanpah is now revealing it will emit 92,200 tons of C02 per year. That is 2,794 times what Tavares reported to her Las Vegas area readers.

Tavares cautioned: “But with potentially dozens of solar thermal plants expected to be built across the Southwest in the next few years, the cumulative effects could be problematic.”

Little did she know that in 2011 California Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic-Party controlled state legislature would exempt “cumulative” environmental impacts for consideration of massed solar projects.

Tavares minimized the impact of air pollution emissions from Ivanpah in her 2010 report, saying:

“The 400-megawatt Ivanpah project, for example, is projected to emit 33 tons of carbon monoxide a year. A combined-cycle natural gas plant putting out the same amount of electricity would release 400 tons a year.”

About 60 solar power plants, including solar thermal plants, were reportedly planned for siting on Federal land nearby to Ivanpah in the Southern portion of Nevada in 2010.

However, solar thermal power plants only have a capacity factor of 20 percent, while an Advanced Combined Cycle Natural Gas Plant has an 87 percent capacity according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Ivanpah is only able to operate 249 days per year and only during daylight hours.

Would one 400-MW low-polluting combined cycle natural gas power plant have offered greater net environmental and economic benefits than a mass of solar thermal power plants? Massing thermal solar power plants runs counter to Paracelsus’ first principle of toxicology: concentrating anything will make it toxic.

Concentrated Solar Thermal Power: “Dirty Power”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s policy of designating specific desert areas for mass solar power plants to avoid national conservation areas is in the early stage of backfiring. Not only are mass solar plant areas a public safety hazard to commercial aircraft, but also such massing in the Mojave Desert will result in the potential of smog and greater greenhouse gases than possibly one mere combined cycle natural gas power plant.

The plant’s operators deny any environmental impacts but 92,200 tons of Greenhouse Gas emissions are hard to deny. That is equivalent to 370 tons of GHG emissions for each of the plant’s 249 operating days per year. Mass concentrated solar thermal power plants will now have to be reclassified as “dirty power.”

The moral of the story? Expansive government is good at merely shifting environmental and economic problems around from one political constituency or region to another, while claiming it has solved such problems.


  1. Tom Tanton  

    When Solar One (and Two) power towers and various SEGS unit trough collectors were being licensed there was always permit questions surounding gas fuel flow and flux. IIRC the limit was about 25% of total energy over some time frame. Anybody claiming surprise at this is being disingenuous. Besides, that limit also applies top “renewables” under PURPA anad hence getting paid avoided cost.


  2. John W. Garrett  

    I won’t be holding my breath waiting for NPR or PBS to broadcast a report.


  3. hris y  

    It is remarkable that Ivanpah’s natural gas boilers are being run for 4.5 hours per day, when the solar energy portion only runs for an average of about 6.5 hours per day. No wonder the solar cheerleaders don’t want this inconvenient truth to see any daylight, so to speak.


  4. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Reply to Tom Tanton

    Ivanpah’s petition for an amendment to its Air Quality Conditions Certification of March 26, 2014, stated in typical technocratic language:

    “The ISEGS 1, ISEGS 2, and ISEGS 3 (Ivanpah) 3 boilers shall not exceed a total annual natural gas fuel input that is more than 5 percent of the total annual heat input from the sun for ISEGS 1, ISEGS 2, and ISEGS 3, respectively.”

    Later in the petition it is stated more clearly: “Heat input from natural gas will not exceed 5 percent of the heat input from the sun, on an annual basis.”

    To the initial approval was only for 5% of total solar heat or 120,000 MMBtu/year (millions of British Thermal Units per year).


  5. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Reply to hris y

    My understanding is that Ivanpah burns natural gas mainly at night to keep auxiliary boilers warm, in the early morning just before the sun comes up to ramp up the base temperature, and at spot periods when there is cloud cover. The 12-hour solar insolation period starts around 7 am and ends around 7 pm.


  6. Lloyd Slezak  

    I don’t think that the articles claim suggesting that a 400 megawatt combined cycle plant would emit 400 tons per year is anywhere near correct. Quick search on Google suggests emission rate of 500 g/kWh. If you do the math, you get way way way more than 400 tons / yr.


  7. Mark  

    “Heat input from natural gas will not exceed 5 percent of the heat input from the sun, on an annual basis.”

    Is this a belated April Fools joke?


  8. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Reply to Mark
    Good comment. How could the California Energy Commission and two electric utilities such as Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have not reviewed Ivanpah’s engineering calculations on the boilers? Just the 5% of heat input limit should have been a red flag. My guess is that everybody was making so much money on the back end in tax credits, subsidies, and higher transmission fees (Edison) that what did they care if Ivanpah was an obvious “gross polluter?”


  9. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Reply to Lloyd Slezak

    Yes, the newspaper article I cited way underestimated emissions from a natural gas power plant. Thanks for bringing this to the attention of readers. The only suggestion I made is that perhaps it would be better to build one lower polluting combined cycle gas plant which has a lot less land footprint on the desert, would reduce pollution from the coal power plants in Arizona and Utah that serve California, and would deliver cheaply priced power. A nat gas plant sounds like a win-win-win for the environment, utility customers, and nearby Las Vegas — but it wouldn’t create an entire industry that would be subservient to the largesse of the Democratic Party and delivering it votes.


  10. Mike Black  

    Ivanpah (as well as other solar tower facilities) use molten salts to store heat so that it can be used to generate steam (and hence) electricity at night. It’s likely that the natural gas is being used supplement the heat when the molten salt is not hot enough boil the water to run the steam turbine. The 4.5 hr of natural gas should be compared with the 24 hr operation of the steam turbines, not the 6 hrs of max solar output.

    Second, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are confused in the article. One is a poison for animals (CO) and one is a greenhouse gas and carbon-source for plants (CO2).


  11. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Second Reply to Mike Black

    Re: Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are confused in the article.

    In the April 2014 Application to the Mohave Desert Air Quality Management District, Solar Partners, managers for Ivanpah, stated the following:

    Table B-2 Emissions Calculations

    States all Greenhouse Gases emitted per year all boilers is 94,545 tons.
    This includes NOx (Nitrogen Oxide), SOx (Sulphur Oxide), ROC (Reactive Organic Compounds), PM 10 (Particulate Matter), and CO (Carbon Monoxide). Non-boiler emissions also include 204 tons per year of Greenhouse Gas emissions (Table B-3).

    Link: Link: http://www.kcet.org/news/rewire/TN201928_20140326T164429_Ivanpah_Petition_to_Amend_No_4.pdf

    NOx, SOx, ROC, PM10, and CO (Carbon Monoxide) all contribute to smog according to Wikepedia.com (Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smog).

    The calculation of C02 (Carbon Dioxide) emissions of 92,200 tons per year equivalent to emissions 16,500 cars comes from Chris Clarke, energy reporter, on website for KCET Public TV, Los Angeles.
    Link: http://www.kcet.org/news/rewire/solar/concentrating-solar/ivanpah-solar-plant-owners-want-to-burn-a-lot-more-natural-gas.html

    You might want to contact Clarke as to how he calculated the C02 emissions.


  12. rbradley  

    “Blinded by Green Energy” in the American Thinker covers some Ivanpah problems: http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2014/03/blinded_by_green_energy.html


  13. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Reply to Rob Bradley

    Thank you for sending along the American Thinker first hand report of glare from Ivanpah interfering with pilot visibility in the area. The photo tells the story. Due to U.S. Bureau of Land Management policies, the Ivanpah Valley is to be zoned for 60 new solar farms, many of which are to be Concentrated Tower Solar Projects like Ivanpah’s 1, 2, & 3 towers. Now we can see the consequences of what will happened from California Gov. Jerry Brown’s exempting solar projects in the Mojave Desert from “cumulative” environmental impacts of many projects. Will California Senators Dianne Feinstein or Barbara Boxer, or for that matter Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, step in and have the U.S. EPA file an injunction until the glare issue can be studied further? Don’t hold your breath.


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