California's new solar plant: Burning up taxpayer money, land, and wildlife

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Article Highlights

  • Land use both massive and massively unappealing is a necessary feature of solar thermal facilities generally, and Ivanpah in particular.

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  • Ivanpah is a monstrosity, the kind that only a marriage among Beltway politicians, crony capitalists, and environmental Leftists could engender.

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  • Insects are attracted to the glowing light of the solar towers, followed by smaller birds seeking to feed on the insects, followed in turn by larger predator birds.

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While the federal government receives net payments for electricity-related oil and gas production on federal land, the net subsidy for the new Ivanpah solar plant is almost 300 times greater.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Southern California Mojave desert began operations in February, and it is huge. How huge? Let us count the ways:

Huge costs. The Ivanpah capital cost is $2.2 billion for 392 megawatts (MW) of gross generation capacity (potential power output per hour). (That 392 MW is a number not comparable to 392 MW of, say, gas-fired capacity, because of a sharply lower “capacity factor,” discussed below.) Accordingly, the nominal capital cost per kilowatt (kW, one one-thousandth of a MW) of capacity for Ivanpah is about $5600, a figure that ignores some costs that are important but hidden. In comparison, the Energy Information Administration publishes estimates of the capacity costs per kW for coal, combined-cycle natural gas, nuclear, and on-shore wind capacity: respectively about $2700, $885, $4800, and $2075. For solar thermal plants in general, the EIA estimate is about $4750. (Bear in mind that these figures are for capacity costs only; they exclude fuel, operations and maintenance, and other costs.) The per-kW capacity cost of Ivanpah is well over twice that of wind power, which cannot compete economically without the federal production tax creditguaranteed market shares, and other subsidies.1

Lest you suspect that this unflattering comparison suffers from some sort of frontloading bias or the like, consider the EIA estimates of capacity costs per megawatt-hour (mWh) of power generation on a “levelized” basis (smoothed over the expected lives of the facilities): about $195 for solar thermal, $60 for conventional coal, $15 for natural gas, and $71 for nuclear. The EIA estimate for on-shore wind power is about $64, again an implausible figure. That the estimate for solar thermal facilities is three times that for wind is telling given that wind power is not competitive.

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