Solar energy not the answer

Published 12:54 pm Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Ivanpah Solar Generating Station located in Ivanpah Valley, Calif., opened in January. It is located on 3,500 acres, 5 square miles, of federal lands in the Mohave Desert.

The first of its kind solar-power plant uses 356,000 garage door-size mirrors to reflect sun onto large boilers, located on top of three 459-foot towers. The reflected sunlight heats water to more than 1,000 degrees, creating steam that spins electricity-generating turbines.

Ivanpah is the largest facility using this technology in the world. It uses reflected sunlight unlike conventional solar plants that convert sunlight into energy through photovoltaic cells. The mirrors reflect energy rather than absorbing it.

Email newsletter signup

Ivanpah could be the first and last of its kind in the U.S. The plummeting price of photovoltaic solar panels, cheaper natural gas and evaporating government loan guarantees have made financing large-scale projects shaky.

New Jersey-based NRG Energy Inc. stated that the project would not have been built without a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee. The last of these investment tax credit breaks expire in 2016.

Last spring at an energy summit in New York, David Crane, NRG Energy’s chief executive, said that the trend to larger solar plants was “idiotic.”

According to California’s Independent System Operator, the plant provided no power on some days and 20 percent to 40 percent capacity on others. During the winter it is expected to operate at 20 percent capacity; during peak months 45 percent.

NRG and BrightSource Energy, plant designers, have slashed their slate of projects in the U.S. Plans for another California solar farm were put on indefinite hold last year, and another project was abandoned.

They say they are taking their technology to more favorable markets in China, Africa and the Middle East.

Experts estimate electricity from these large solar-power plants is twice as expensive as electricity from conventional sources.

A horde of dignitaries, including Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, were on hand to celebrate Ivanpah’s official opening after nearly four years of construction, during which desert tortoises were killed, feathers off passing birds were burned and thousands of acres of native flora were mowed down. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told state regulations that they were concerned that the heat generated by the project could kill golden eagles and other protected species.

Many people falsely believe that renewable energy will soon let us get off fossil fuels. Unfortunately the facts say otherwise. Solar power makes up less than one-half of one percent of all power produced in North America, even though there are large areas of the continent where the sun shines continually.

The solar technology does not exist that will allow solar electricity to contribute to the energy mix in a meaningful way. It is 5 to 11 times more expensive to produce electricity from the sun than it is from coal, hydro or nuclear sources.

The world is learning that all three replacements for coal and nuclear power have major flaws:

1. Wind only works when the wind blows;

2. Solar only works when the sun shines;

3. Gas only works when Russia says it will.


Joseph P. Smith is the owner of Pyro-Chem Corporation in South Point and has worked in the energy industry for more than three decades. He can be reached by email at