The Wall Street Journal has returned attention to the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the $2.2 billion Department of Energy-backed concentrated solar power plant.

The Wall Street Journal has returned attention to the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the $2.2 billion Department of Energy-backed concentrated solar power plant whose slow start became the subject of some controversy after a Breaking Energy story last fall.

The Journal reported that “15 months after starting up, the California plant is producing just 40 percent” of the electricity it was expected to generate. The paper said Ivanpah’s operator, NRG, expects the plant to “reach power targets once the kinks are worked out,” but surprisingly didn’t check that claim against the latest data: In the first quarter of this year, Ivanpah generation was up 170 percent over the same quarter in 2014 – 108 gigawatt-hours compared to 40 GWh, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Generation at all three Ivanpah unit's is up significantly in its second year of operation.


Jennifer Z. Rigney, spokeswoman for Ivanpah’s technology provider, BrightSource Energy, passed along a statement from NRG that said the upward trend continued in April, although the company did not give a precise figure for the month (EIA data for April is not yet available).

“As we expected, our operating crew’s expertise with the technology is increasing all the time and the plant is continuing to increase its generation,” the statement read. “In March, Ivanpah produced the second most power it has ever done in a single month. April exceeded that level of generation within just the first two-thirds of the month and ultimately set a new record for power generated in a single month.”

As we reported in January (“Ivanpah Solar Plant Picking Up Steam”), it’s likely that Ivanpah’s performance has also been aided by an increase in the use of natural gas – 60 percent more than originally planned – which gives the plant a boost in starting up in the morning and avoiding losing steam through brief cloudy periods.

Ivanpah's three units began operating at varying times in January 2014.


NRG says Ivanpah set a record for generation in April 2015, but EIA data is not yet available for that month.

Ivanpah produces energy by bouncing sunlight to the top of 450-foot-tall towers, where water is heated to create steam that drives turbines.

Ivanpah’s performance is being closely watched because power towers are seen as the best bet for concentrating solar power. Although the technology has been hammered by cheap, increasingly productive photovoltaics in the past five years (and has run into environmental issues), its advocates hold out hope that its compatibility with energy storage could make it a winner. Ivanpah wasn’t built with storage, but SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes plant was. After seemingly endless delays, that plant, in Nevada, supposedly will come online this summer.

BrightSource and NRG, while admitting the plant has had its share of hiccups, have disputed the notion that Ivanpah is falling well short of expected generation, saying that all along they knew it would take up to four years to hit full stride. That claim had seemed a bit dodgy, seemingly coming only after the poor early start was exposed. But in fact the claim is backed up by assertions made in a 2011 federal filing by BrightSource:

As with any plant representing new and innovative technology, there will be an initial shake-out and ramp-up period when the plant is placed into operation. As such, initial performance will be less than full design; however, over time, plant performance will increase towards designed full-rated annual performance (referred to as mature-year performance). This increase is caused by the realization of the operator’s learning curve, procedural optimization, and fine-tuning of equipment and systems for increased plant performance. For the Ivanpah project, BrightSource Energy, Inc. (BSE) has proposed that this ramp-up process may last up to four years.

That said, there are also signs that the first-year performance of the plant was below the levels anticipated in power purchase agreements with the two California utilities buying Ivanpah’s output.

Full PPA details are confidential, but according to state regulatory filings, Pacific Gas & Electric contracted to receive 304 GWh/year from Ivanpah 1 and 336 GWh from Ivanpah 3. Southern California Edison expected 336 GWh from Unit 2.

SEC filings by BrightSource allude to “minimum performance standards” in the contracts – 70 percent of the “power expected,” on average, in the first two years of operation, rising to 80 percent at the end of year three and thereafter.

The units declared commercial operations under the power purchase agreements at varying times, on January 10, 2014 for Unit 1, January 31, 2014 for Unit 2, and January 15, 2014 for Unit 3.

According to the EIA, Ivanpah 1 and 3 together produced about 290 GWh by the end of 2014, just a few weeks shy of a full year of operation, equivalent to 45 percent of the annual PG&E contract quantity. To hit 70 percent (895 GWh) for the first two-year measuring period, it appears the units combined will need to generate about 605 GWh this year, or nearly 95 percent of the single-year contract quantity. Ivanpah 2 fared poorer in its first full year, producing 134 GWh (40 percent of the annual contract quantity). That means the unit would have to produce 336 GWh – 100 percent of the single-year target – to meet the contract minimums noted to in the SEC filings.

Mind you, these are broad-stroke calculations and it’s quite likely the power purchase agreements include adjustment mechanisms that take into account the many potential complicating factors in producing and delivering energy. We sent questions to NRG asking about the plant’s performance against its contractual obligations, but hadn’t heard back.

An Open Letter to the Wall Street Journal

Developing new, advanced technologies is not for the faint of heart. Because of its high profile nature, Ivanpah remains the subject of close scrutiny by those others who may not agree with the policies that helped make it possible. We get that. However, a recent Journal article – High-Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver – ignored the steady progress at the project in recent months. In fact, following the Journal’s article, Breaking Energy took a deeper look at the numbers and reported Ivanpah’s solar production up 170% in 2015*.

Ivanpah is a new plant, and the first of its kind at this scale. A performance “learning curve” has always been planned since the project’s earliest stages, which is normal for a thermal power plant of any kind. As a result, it is misleading to compare an initial ramp up period with a “mature year” output projected for 2018 onward. And it’s important to remember Ivanpah’s performance is measured on a cumulative annual basis, not monthly, as presented in the story.

Over the last few months, Ivanpah has reached a number of important milestones, including the completion of its first year of commercial operation at the end of January 2015.  During this time, Ivanpah has continued to increase production as planned. As expected the operating crew’s expertise with the technology is increasing each day and the plant continues to increase its generation.

In March 2015, Ivanpah produced the second most power ever in a single month.  April exceeded that level of generation within just the first two-thirds of the month and ultimately set a new record as well. And in May, Ivanpah set new energy (MWh) production records for each unit and for total plant output in a single day.

Contrary to what was reported, environmental mitigation for the facility was planned and required by permit. It did not cause cost overruns or schedule delays. In fact, Ivanpah was delivered on time and on budget, an amazing accomplishment for any infrastructure project of its size. Moreover, Ivanpah is minimizing impacts on native ecosystems and establishing best practices for site selection, low-impact design, water usage, air quality and, yes, species protection.

Equally significant is comprehensive scientific data now available about the facility’s avian impact after completing its first full year of independent monitoring. Released in April by the California Energy Commission, the Ivanpah Avian and Bat Monitoring Plan Annual Report, required by state and federal agencies and prepared by leading environmental consultants HT Harvey and Associates, concluded that migratory bird mortality would be categorized as low.

This is good news for those who care about renewable energy and its immediate impact on the local environment. It’s also a reflection of the extensive efforts Ivanpah’s owners have undertaken to reduce avian mortality. The facility employs a number of humane avian deterrent systems similar to those used at airports. Additionally, it is implementing practices beyond conventional operational procedures, such as sound deterrents.

Ivanpah is designed to operate for decades and will deliver as expected over the long haul. Those looking for next generation renewable technologies are excited for a reason: Ivanpah is showing the world what solar thermal can do on a large scale 

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the Journal’s reports of Ivanpah’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Note: As discussed in Breaking Energy’s article, the project’s use of natural gas remains within the de minimus requirement (2% – 5% of total fuel use) as defined by the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to be considered RPS-eligible delivered electricity. For more on natural gas use at Ivanpah, read #5 here.

by Joe Desmond