Solar-thermal plants fall short of power targets

June 13, 2015

Solar-thermal generating plants like Ivanpah aren’t living up to expectations. Cassandra Sweet in the Wall Street Journal reports that the $2.2 billion Ivanpah plant in California is producing just 40% of its expected million megawatt-hours per year. And a plant in Arizona built by Abengoa SA is putting out only half its expected power.

She quotes Randy Hickok, a senior vice president at Ivanpah operator NRG, as saying, “There’s a lot more on-the-job learning with Ivanpah,” compared with photovoltaic installations.

In contrast, she reports, SunPower Corp. has been able to get 4% more power from a traditional solar-panel farm in California as the technology improves.

Problems at Ivanpah include an underestimation of the amount of fossil-fuel-generated steam needed to get the plant running each morning. In addition, there has been more cloud cover than expected—ironic considering the drought in California.

Sweet reports that NRG and Abengoa expect their plants to reach power targets as problems get solved. Nevertheless, she quotes Lucas Davis, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, as saying, “I don’t expect a lot of solar thermal to get built. It’s just too expensive.”

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