Are The Ivanpah Solar Plant Problems A Result Of Bad Science Or Bad Luck?

Many people including me thought that the science behind Ivanpah Solar Plant was so much better than the rest of the pack that it was the renewable energy idea that was most likely to succeed. Last year I heard stories that the plant was using considerably more natural gas than anticipated in an effort to start steam generation from solar power earlier in the day. So either the brine was cooling off too quickly overnight or someone had dramatically underestimated the power available from the morning sun. It is an intriguing mechanical engineering problem but it looked more like a problem with bad solar science rather than bad luck with the weather. The unanswered question was whether this solar science problem could be overcome with a small additional cost or was this a deal breaker for this plant?

This month we got the answer.

California electric utility regulators on Thursday, March 17, approved a deal between Pacific Gas & Electric and the owners of Ivanpah solar plant that gives plant operators more time to increase electricity production.

The plant’s owners have agreed to pay PG&E an undisclosed sum in exchange for getting time to improve the plant’s electricity output. The deal followed realizations that the plant is failing to meet its production obligations to the utility.

Technically the plant’s owners signed a forbearance agreement so that PG&E will not declare that its power purchase agreement with the plant owners is in default. When PG&E uses the word default the problem is serious and activists are forcing it to confront the production problem. If Californians opted to buy renewable power through higher utility rates, they better be getting their power from solar powered generators and not from gas powered generators. If the plant owners do not get their act together by July 31 then they probably have only one six month extension they can count on before PG&E will push for default.  According to the report the solar power production for last year amounted to only 624,500 megawatt hours of solar power or about 62% of what they expected to produce. This production number is 50% better than the previous year and it was achieved primarily by preheating the water to extend the solar production day.  Once again this looks like a mechanical engineering patch for bad solar science rather than luck with the weather.

The really interesting question is what can the plant owner’s do to avoid default and what is the future for renewable energy. The plant owner’s have enough solar data from running the plant in 2014 and 2015 to predict the maximum amount of electricity they can generate from solar power. Do they have any engineering tricks left that will improve solar power production by 50% or is the best strategy is to avoid the sunk cost fallacy and admit defeat. Negotiating a new contract with lower production quotas sounds like a better financial solution for the plant owners than throwing additional money at the problem or shutting down the plant. The enduring problem is that the Ivanpah failure will give credence to the argument that big renewable energy projects are not only bad investments but are prone to corruption through the use of bad science. Future renewable energy projects will be slower to fund and construct since they will have to meet much tougher scientific standards.