| IVANPAH DRY LAKE, Calif./LOS ANGELES
IVANPAH DRY LAKE, Calif./LOS ANGELES Feb 13 One
of the world's largest solar projects, which uses heat from the
sun to generate power in California, opened on Thursday but may
be the last of its kind in The Golden State.
Sprawling across 3,500 acres (1,400 hectares) in the Mojave
desert near the California-Nevada border, the $2.2 billion
Ivanpah solar thermal power plant has more than 300,000 mirrors
that reflect sunlight onto boilers housed in the top of three
towers, each of which is 150 feet (45 meters) taller than the
Statue of Liberty.
The sun heats water inside the towers, creating steam that
moves turbines and produces enough emissions-free electricity to
power 140,000 homes, or about 392-megawatts.
Though Ivanpah is an engineering marvel, experts doubt more
plants like it will be built in California. Other solar
technologies are now far cheaper than solar thermal, federal
guarantees for renewable energy projects have dried up, and
natural gas-fired plants are much cheaper to build.
From a distance, the mirrors - known as heliostats - look
like a pristine lake rising from the desert. Ivanpah, about four
times larger than New York City's Central Park, can even be seen
from the International Space Station.
The Ivanpah plant was partially backed by a $1.6 billion
loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, the same
controversial program that supported failed solar panel maker
The opening of the Ivanpah plant marks a big step in federal
and state renewable energy efforts, but government funds for
such projects under President Barack Obama have been largely
That means the private sector must fill the gap at a time
when building a natural-gas fired power plant costs about $1,000
per megawatt, a fraction of the $5,500 per megawatt that Ivanpah
"Our job was to kickstart the demonstration of these
different technologies," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in
an interview high up on one of the plant's three towers.
The solar market has changed dramatically since Ivanpah was
approved by California regulators in 2010.
Traditional solar panels, based on photovoltaic technology
that uses the sun's light to generate electricity, have
undergone a massive drop in price in the last few years, leaving
solar thermal far costlier.
Ivanpah developer BrightSource Energy Inc has failed to
secure a permit for any other solar thermal projects in
California in part due to environmental concerns, including
fears that the intense heat and energy around its plants would
harm or kill desert birds.
Ivanpah is jointly owned by privately-held BrightSource,
power plant owner NRG Energy Inc and Google Inc
Aside from Ivanpah, NRG has invested in two other massive,
government-backed solar power plants in the U.S. West, but said
smaller photovoltaic (PV) solar panel installations are the
future of the industry as it shifts toward distributed
generation on rooftops and away from large solar farms.
"There's no doubt that in terms of price competitiveness
solar photovoltaic is cheaper," NRG Chief Executive David Crane.
"What really gets me excited in the morning is that there are 50
million American buildings that should have solar PV on them."
Solar thermal projects like Ivanpah are more likely to crop
up overseas in places like India, where land and sun are
plentiful and cheap natural gas is not abundant as it is in the
United States, said Andy Gillespie, project manager for Bechtel,
the engineering and construction contractor for Ivanpah.
Late last year, Oakland-based BrightSource said it would
focus increasingly on markets outside the United States and in
using its technology for industrial applications like enhanced
oil recovery, desalination and augmenting existing fossil fuel
power plants. The market for solar thermal power will reach 30
gigawatts globally by 2020, up from 2.5 GW at the end of 2012,
BrightSource said at the time.
"We will have failed as a company if the last project we
build is Ivanpah," BrightSource CEO David Ramm said at the
BrightSource is more than 20 percent owned by French power
equipment maker Alstom SA. Other investors include
venture capital firms VantagePoint Capital Partners and DBL
Investors, Goldman Sachs Inc GS.N, Chevron Technology Ventures
and BP Ventures.