Saturday, May 5, 2012

Brightsource Energy Industrializes the Mojave Desert



A receiving tower at the Brightsource Energy Ivanpah Valley, California solar thermal project under construction - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Brightsource Energy Industrializes the Mojave Desert

Recently, I traveled through the Mojave Desert on Interstate I-15 North. At Ivanpah Valley, California, I saw construction cranes building three colossal steel towers. Brightsource Energy, Bechtel and Google had recently commandeered 3500 acres of BLM-administered federal lands there. Prior to that, Buffalo Bill’s and Whiskey Pete’s casinos in nearby Primm, Nevada were the largest local developments.

Buffalo Bill and Whiskey Pete proved that even in the middle of nowhere, travelers would stop for food, fuel and gambling. Likewise, Brightsource Energy proved that “clean energy”, financed by a thirty-percent grant and a full federal loan guarantee, is a surefire investment. Therefore, we now witness the permanent destruction of desert tortoise, kit fox and big horned sheep habitat totaling 3500 acres.

All three Brightsource energy Ivanpah solar project receiving towers are visible when you "click for larger image" (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The solar electric generating technology behind the Ivanpah project is yet unproven. There is a Brightsource pilot project in Israel’s Negev Desert, but its power output is only 1.5 megawatts (MW). According to Brightsource, Ivanpah will produce 392 MW. Only in the mega-solar industry could a company inflate its pilot technology 260 times. I cannot predict that Brightsource Energy’s solar thermal technology will fail, but where is the proof that it will work?

Forgotten in all of this is the bankruptcy of our previous “solar savior”, Solyndra, LLC. If nothing else, Solyndra shows how quickly “clean energy” economics can change. Even so, we now sanction Brightsource to build unproven solar infrastructure, largely at public expense. Even before Ivanpah goes online in 2013, Brightsource has plans for larger projects at Hidden Hills, Coalinga and Rio Mesa, California.

At the SoCal Edison (SCE) San Onofre nuclear generating plant, unexplained erosion of high-pressure steam tubes recently sidelined its steam generators. SCE hopes to restart San Onofre at lower power output, if at all. Similar to San Onofre, high-pressure steam generation is crucial to Ivanpah’s viability. Reduced operating efficiency could doom Ivanpah to economic failure.

The super-hype of Buffalo Bill's Resort & Casino at Primm Valley, Nevada (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Already, we have lost the opportunity for a “scale up” project at Ivanpah. The prevailing attitude of appears to be, “Damn the steam generators; full speed ahead.” Still, mega-solar developers tell us that Ivanpah is a prudent financial and technological risk. Of course, they are largely risking public money, rather than their own.

Besides, if their $2.0 billion project fails, Brightsource Energy, Bechtel and Google can always turn the heliostats into tanning booths and the steel towers into thrill rides. Just ask Buffalo Bill and Whiskey Pete. That “huckster with a roller coaster” strategy has worked for them.