The Dark Side of Google's Solar Project

In a recent article, I highlighted both the appeal and the downside of concentrated solar power, a technology that allows for 24-hour solar electricity generation. However, the Ivanpah solar plant in California's Mojave Desert is running into a problem that would almost sound comical if it didn't represent a threat to the future of renewable power in California. 

World's largest solar thermal power plant

Source: Brightsource Energy.

The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is a joint venture between Google (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) , NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG  ) , Bechtel, and Brightsource Energy that came online in mid-2013. The $2.2 billion project was funded by a $1.6 billion loan guarantee by the Department of Energy (DOE), $330 from NRG Energy, and $168 million from Google. 

It is the world's largest solar thermal power plant, at 392 MW of capacity; the power station produces enough clean energy to power 140,000 homes and was built to help California meet its goal of 33% renewable power generation by 2020. 

The way the station works is 300,000 mirrors about the size of a garage door reflect and concentrate sunlight onto three towers that are each 459 feet high. The concentrated light boils water that spins turbines and generates electricity. 

Source: Brightsource Energy.

Google's solar-powered, bird-slaughtering death ray?
It seems that pilots flying into and out of Las Vegas and Los Angeles aren't the only ones bothered by the light reflecting off those mirrors. Federal wildlife officials claims that Ivanpah acts as a "megatrap," with the bright light attracting insects that in turn draw birds which fly into the super-concentrated beams of sunlight and literally ignite in midair.  

Federal Wildlife investigators estimate 28,000 birds per year are killed in this manner and are calling on the California Energy Commission to temporarily halt plans for Brightsource Energy's proposed Palen solar thermal project -- one that involves a 75-story tower located between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border. 

Federal Wildlife officials are concerned because the proposed plant is in the middle of migration patterns for over 100 species of birds, including the endangered Peregrine Falcon and Golden Eagle. They are asking Robert Weisenmiller, Chairman of the Commission, to allow them one year to more thoroughly track the number of bird deaths.

Meanwhile the Renewable Energy Director for the California chapter of the Audubon Society, Garry George, is calling on the Commission to enact a moratorium on new permits for solar thermal projects until an annual survey of bird deaths (especially during migration season) can be undertaken. 

Palen project: Avian apocalypse?

Source: Brightsource Energy.

George's concerns are understandable given that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls tower style solar thermal power plants "the highest lethality potential" solar projects in the state. In addition, according to staff members of the California Energy Commission, Brightsource's Palen project would be four times more lethal to birds than Ivanpah. 

According to Joseph Desmond, Senior Vice President at BrightSource Energy, the company is investigating whether visual or acoustic technologies can act as scarecrows and deter birds from incinerating themselves within the solar beams. However, biologists are skeptical as to whether bird deaths can be averted in this way. Brightsource Energy has stated it's prepared to pay $1.8 million in compensation for anticipated bird deaths from its Palen project, which at 500 MW of capacity (enough for 200,000 homes) would be the largest solar thermal plant in the world. 

However, as sad as tens of thousands of bird deaths are, the biggest problem with concentrated solar thermal projects such as Ivanpah and Palen aren't environmental but economic. 

The boondoggle that is solar thermal power
At a cost of $2.2 billion for 392 MW of capacity, Ivanpah cost $5.61 billion per GW, which is 10% higher than the Energy Information Administration's observed average cost per GW for a solar thermal plant.

However, the real shame is that Ivanpah and other solar thermal projects divert funds from other far more economic means of power production. According to the EIA, here's the cost to construct and operate 1 GW of each kind of power plant for one year:

  • Solar thermal: $5.1 billion/GW, $67.26 million
  • Solar photovoltaic: $3.9 billion/GW, $24.69 million 
  • Onshore wind: $2.2 billion/GW, $39.55 million
  • Hydroelectric power: $2.9 billion/GW, $14.13 million 
  • Advanced combined cycle natural gas: $0.676 Billion/GW, $17.41 million
  • Advanced dual unit coal: $2.9 billion/GW, $35.65 million
Not only is solar thermal 650% more expensive than gas power, but it's also 31%-132% more expensive than other forms of renewable energy. 
California risks becoming the Germany of America
Californians already pay the sixth-highest electricity prices in America: 16.5 cents/KWh, which is 28% higher than the U.S. average of 12.84 cents/KWh, according to the EIA. If the state takes its 33% renewable energy goal seriously, then it must focus all available funds on the most cost-effective means of achieving clean energy. Otherwise, it risks becoming like Germany, which in its passionate pursuit of clean energy, forced its energy prices up to the highest levels in Europe, and quadrupled the average price in the U.S.
Californian economic vibrancy and competitiveness can be maintained while supporting renewable energy -- but only if it stops supporting the least cost-effective method of doing so.

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Adam Galas

Adam Galas is an energy writer for The Motley Fool and a retired Army Medical Services Officer. After serving his country in the global war on terror, he has come home to serve investors by teaching them how to invest better in order to achieve their financial dreams.

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