A Free-Market Energy Blog

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

By Jerry Graf -- November 7, 2013

“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:

· An investment of $1.6 billion 250 MW breaks down to an extravagant $6,400,000 per megawatt.

· The Solar Ranch covers 1,500 acres.

· The CVSR is projected to produce 482,000 MWh per year, implying an operating capacity factor of around 22%.

· Given a reasonable appraisal of the value of 482,000 MWh per year, it is not possible that the solar panels will be able to provide a return sufficient to pay back the $1.6 billion investment within their functional life (not even close), even when ignoring annual operating and maintenance costs. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost (see Updated CSVR Cash Flow).

The appraisal is none too flattering. Indeed, it is devastating in terms of resource (mis)allocation and consumer welfare. Environmental considerations would have to calculate the emissions associated with building the wholly unnecessary plant in payback time.

Opportunity Cost: Natural Gas Plant

A much more viable alternative to a solar generation facility, although not the only one, is a plant using natural gas. A natural gas combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) facility capable of 250 MW would have required less than one-fourth the capital investment, would be capable of making four times the electricity per year at 88% capacity factor, and would fit on a single acre.

Also, a CCGT facility could have been located closer to the point(s) of actual use of the electricity, and could provide dispatchable energy which could be increased or decreased as demand fluctuates; something the solar facility is incapable of providing.

Assuming complete and total displacement of coal generation (something which the CCGT really can do and the Solar Ranch really cannot) the reduction in annual CO2 emissions provided by a 250 MW CCGT facility would be about twice more than the Solar Ranch.

Conclusion: Energy Density

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 statistics gets down to one thing: energy density. As Professor Colin McInnes, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, explained in No time to Abandon Energy Density:

The era of cheap energy is over only if we choose so. If we use technical innovation to accelerate, rather than supplant, moves towards greater energy density, we can deliver energy that is both cheaper and more abundant. And, as a useful side effect, we will help de-carbonise our economy in the process.

There is no doubt that we Americans need to alter our energy strategy. The question of how we will change it, however, needs to be determined by scientific evaluation of fact and logical analysis of performance and economics; not by emotion, political considerations, and “feel good” methodologies.


  1. Rolf Westgard  

    The sun is a big nuclear power plant. but by the time its energy is sent 90 million miles in all directions, it is rather diffuse when it gets to earth. These solar farms are inherently low density and require large direct subsidies to be competitive. Let’s stay with solar research and forget the giant boondoggles.


  2. John W. Garrett  

    This gigantic ripoff ought to whet the appetite of an honest enterprising investigative reporter.


  3. Jerry Graf  

    Rolf & John – Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree with Rolf about research and development. I have never opposed legitimate R&D efforts. If a university or other private entity has a legitimate R&D proposal that has the potential to improve the efficiency, cost, or performance of solar energy generation (or wind turbines for that matter) then I would have no objection for extending support. However, throwing taxpayer money at huge projects to implement current technology, which is demonstrably ineffective, is not R&D; it is simply wasting taxpayer money and lining the pockets of politically connected and favored people and companies like NRG, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, GE, Google, etc. etc.

    Rob – Thanks for the supporting reference, and for another opportunity to post on Master Resource.


  4. perlhaqr  

    The claim that you could fit a 250MW CCGT on 1 acre seems rather optimistic. The smallest comparable facility I could find (in admittedly a pretty short search) is this 255MW CCGT on 10 acres.


    Do you have a link to a plan for a 1 acre CCGT generating 250MW? If not, making that claim somewhat undermines the impact of your article, given that 10 acres is still a vast improvement on 1500 acres.


  5. Kevin  

    A bette proxy is a 2×1 combined cycle. Approximate net plant output is 600 MW (88% capacity factor is reasonable technically, most CC are less because base load coal or intermittente renewables force them to curtail). Capex for this type of plant is $1,000 per kW, if anything $1,500/kw is conservative.


  6. Jerry Graf  

    Perlhaqr – I do not have a specific reference to a CCGT facility plan like you provided. I recall seeing plans for CCGT plants in the 400-600 MW range in which the turbine, generator, and transformer facility sat on an area just over 6000 square meters (1.5 acres) and I was extrapolating down and generalizing.

    Kevin – I concur that 88% is a reasonable and attainable “pure” capacity factor for a new CCGT facility. In general, if such facilities operate at less than this it is due to some outside assignable cause (like those you mention) resulting in lesser demand and therefore no need to operate at full capacity. Since I am comparing to a pure estimate of output (482,000 MWh/year or 22% CF) for the CVSR facility, I think this is a fair assessment. Also, I do recognize that I am being deliberately conservative in my cost estimation for the comparison CCGT facility; because I was discussing the CCGT comparison in round approximate numbers (“less than one-fourth the capital investment”). I agree with you that a more precise figure of true cost would be more like $1,000 to $1,100 per MW for CCGT, based on information from the IEA and the US EIA.

    Once again, thank you both for reading and commenting.


  7. Jerry Graf  

    perlhaqr – I find you to be correct regarding relative size of a complete CCGT facility. I was relying too much on memory. Please see Clarification & Correction here:



  8. Cost of energy  

    […] of living and whose price makes a significant impact on poverty. Jerry Graf takes a look at the 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 […]


  9. Follow the numbers. | On the North River  

    […] Master Resource looks at the California Valley Solar Ranch In a realistic appraisal of the CVSR we should note the following: […]


  10. MikeL  

    The spread sheet that shows the financials does not include the 3.5% interest on the 1.6 billon. If it did it would show the loan is never paid back ever.


  11. Jerry Graf  

    MikeL – I totally agree that my cash flow ROI analysis is very simplistic, and it leaves out multiple considerations such as annual interest on the loan, annual O&M costs, and annual PV efficiency degradation (0.5 to 1.0%). The point is that a realistic analysis of this business case is devastating, even without these considerations.

    The implied question is “Why/how is NRG doing this?”…..and the answer is given in the NY Times article. There are other grants, subsidies, and tax credits that are defraying the costs at taxpayer expense. Also, and more importantly, there is a guarantee of customers who are mandated by law to buy this electricity, and a power purchase agreement that allows NRG to sell it at prices far above market rates, driving up the cost of electricity. The NY Times article suggests this PPA allows prices as high as $150 to $180 per MWh.


  12. Carbonicus  

    Unchecked, Leftism will spend itself into oblivion trying to defeat the laws of physics and economics with regard to “Green” energy.

    Energy density. You nailed it.


  13. National Renewable Electricity Standard: Why raise electricity prices? | Watts Up With That?  

    […] area of 1,500 acres, more than 100 times the area of a typical natural gas-fired power plant, but produces an average output of only about 55 megawatts, less than one-tenth the output of a typical gas-fired […]


  14. Sam Hopes  

    But can any location that has flat topolography increase Power Generation using solar resource?

    California Valley Solar Ranch is a 250 MW solar photovoltaic power project developed in San Luis Obispo County, California, US. SunPower was responsible for the design and construction of the plant. The location of plant was selected because of its flat topography, abundant solar resources and proximity to existing transmission lines.



  15. uncle normy  

    Having worked 10 years at a 2×1 combined cycle plant built in 2001, I can say that we did much better than 88% availability.
    Ironically, our plant is located ~30 miles by air from CVSP, and was just acquired by NRG. Who also own the huge solar receiver tower plant near Primm, Nevada. It’s so large you can see it on google maps satellite view.


  16. Communities Digital News  

    […] covers a 1,500 acres, more than 100 times the area of a typical natural gas-fired power plant, but produces an average output of only about 55 megawatts, less than one-tenth the output of a typical […]


  17. Morro Bay Power Plant shutdown saves fish, kills birds | CalWatchdog.com  

    […] Bay is now getting power from the new California Valley Solar Ranch in eastern San Luis Obispo County.  This $1.6 billion, 250-megawatt solar farm comprises 749,088 […]


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