The New Solar Isn’t Shining Bright


While the fracking revolution chugs along nicely, the so-called renewable energy continues to disappoint everyone but the environmentalist ideologues who spawned it. A recent article brings the whole, sorry green energy mess to mind.

I refer to the “new, improved” high-tech design for solar power, the “solar-thermal” technology. Unlike the traditional solar power facility, which involves enormous numbers of solar panels converting sunlight directly into electricity, a solar-thermal facility uses a huge array of mirrors to focus sunlight on the top of a tower, which holds a boiler. The focused sunlight makes the water in the boiler turn to steam, which then turns a turbine to create power. That is, it uses the usual boiler-turbine arrangement, but the heat is supplied by sunlight, rather than coal, natural gas, or nuclear fission.

This “exciting” new technology — as new as maybe Archimedes — attracted the interest of Google, which invested with NRG Energy to have BrightSource Energy build a large solar-thermal plant in the California part of the Mojave Desert. This plant (the Ivanpah plant) cost $2.2 billion to construct and was projected to produce more than a million megawatt-hours of power annually.

You couldn’t dream this up — a non-fossil fuel technology that requires four hours of fossil-fuel burning, every day, just to get started.

Well, it was completed well over a year ago, and it produces only 40% of the promised power. Yes, 170,000 mirrors targeting solar rays at a boiler are nowhere near as efficient as they were planned to be. Welcome to the world of unintended consequences!

There have been several unforeseen problems with the new wonder technology. First, there are equipment maintenance issues, from leaking tubes to excessive turbine vibrations, which nobody suspected ahead of time.

Second, the turbines require far more steam to run efficiently than was initially calculated. The original idea was that getting the plant ramped up in the morning — remember, the sun doesn’t shine at night! — would require running a natural-gas heater for about an hour. But turns out that they have to run the heater for four hours! Yes, you couldn’t dream this up — a non-fossil fuel technology that requires four hours of fossil-fuel burning, every day, just to get started. A wonder technology, indeed.

Third — and it is astounding that the Google Wunda-Boys never google-searched this — there is less sunlight onsite than was originally guesstimated. Amazingly, there are many cloudy days, even in the desert!

The article goes on to report that the Ivanpah facility is not the only one to prove a disappointment. A similar plant built in Arizona by the Spanish firm Abengoa is delivering only half the original estimated amount of power.

No doubt these projects had some kind of direct or indirect federal subsidies — “brilliant” projects guaranteed by your tax money. Solar sucks up huge tax resources, even though it produces less than 1% of American electric power. What a colossal and pathetic joke on all of us.

The article ends by noting something I pointed out in these pages a year and a half ago: this new google-icious power technology kills birds by literally scorching them. The air around the tower is heated to about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so when a hapless bird flies by, the bird is burned to death. The plant kills about 3,500 birds a year in this way.

There have been fracking plants shut down by the federal government under the suspicion of killing one lousy bird. But then, you see, fracking — economically and geopolitically a godsend to this country — isn’t considered a “Green” technology.

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Jim Stiles

If they had designed the plant to use natural gas when the sun was not shining, they would have been able to supply electricity 24/7, but then they would have forfeited all of the federal government incentive money.

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