Thursday, November 20, 2014

Not Enough Sunlight for California Solar Power Plant

The largest solar power plant of its type in the world - once promoted as a turning point in green energy - isn't producing as much energy as planned. 
One of the reasons is as basic as it gets: The sun isn't shining as much as expected. 
Sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal desert near the California-Nevada border, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System opened in February, with operators saying it would produce enough electricity to power a city of 140,000 homes. 
So far, however, the plant is producing about half of its expected annual output for 2014, according to calculations by the California Energy Commission.
... "Factors such as clouds, jet contrails and weather have had a greater impact on the plant than the owners anticipated," the agency said in a statement.
Greentech Media provides some more details:
The Mojave Desert plant, built with the aid of a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee, kicked off commercial operation at the tail end of December 2013, and for the eight-month period from January through August, its three units generated 254,263 megawatt-hours of electricity, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. That’s roughly one-quarter of the annual 1 million-plus megawatt-hours that had been anticipated. 
Output did pick up in the typically sunny months of May, June, July and August, as one might expect, with 189,156 MWh generated in that four-month period. But even that higher production rate would translate to annual electricity output of less than 600,000 MWh, at least 40 percent below target. 
Another sign of the plant’s early operating woes: In March, the owners sought permission (PDF) to use 60 percent more natural gas in auxiliary boilers than was allowed under the plant’s certification, a request that was approved in August. 
Some might point to Ivanpah’s struggles as another potential black eye for the U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee program, but losses in the DOE portfolio have been small, well under what was budgeted for the program by Congress. Still, the plant’s slow start can’t be good news for its owners, particularly BrightSource, the company whose technology is on display at Ivanpah and which has struggled to advance other planned power tower projects in California. 
Plant operator NRG declined to answer emailed questions about Ivanpah’s performance; BrightSource was more responsive. 
The company said that “weather at Ivanpah since February has generally been worse than expected, resulting in reduced output.” July, when generation dipped to 35,967 MWh from 64,275 MWh in June -- the plant’s best month so far -- was particularly lacking in sunshine, BrightSource said, at least relative to the expectations the company developed over several years of meteorological study of the area.
You may have heard of the Ivanpah facility before, as it has been blamed for bird deaths.
According to the Associated Press, up to 28,000 birds per year might be meeting an early death after burning up in the focused beams of sunlight, with birds dying at a rate of one bird every two minutes. The burned-up birds are being dubbed "streamers," after the poof of smoke produced by the igniting birds. 
A report by the USFWS states that most of the birds are dying from various levels of exposure to "solar flux" which causes "singeing of feathers." 
"Severe singeing of flight feathers caused catastrophic loss of flying ability, leading to death by impact with the ground or other objects," the report states. "Less severe singeing led to impairment of flight capability, reducing ability to forage and evade predators, leading to starvation or predation." 
A quasi-food chain is being established around the solar plant, with predators eating birds and bats that burn up in the plant's solar rays chasing after insects which are attracted to the bright light from the sun's reflected rays. That prompted wildlife officials to refer to Ivanpah as a "mega-trap" for wildlife.
Some of the birds killed are from endangered species.

I don't raise this story as another example of failed "green energy" projects (although it is that), but that it is receiving less sunlight in a year of record droughts in California--presumably a period that would see less than normal cloud cover. Is this evidence of less sunlight reaching the Earth's surface and, therefore, of a cooling trend?

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