Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz marked the opening of the world’s largest solar thermal plant on Thursday in the Mojave Desert near the border of California and Nevada. The 392-MW Ivanpah project, developed by BrightSource Energy Co, started operating last month after six years of construction.
With California struggling through one of the worst droughts on record, and Ivanpah already being located in a high desert climate, water conservation has been a major focus. Solar thermal plants use solar mirrors to heat water in boilers that in turn produce steam to turn the electricity generating turbines, are more water intensive than more common solar photovoltaic panels.
“Ivanpah is utilizing dry-cooling technology that dramatically reduces water usage,” Moniz said. “In fact, this entire facility will use roughly the same amount of water as two holes at the nearby golf course.”
The electricity generated at Ivanpah will be enough to power more than 100,000 homes, and is expected to avoid more than 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year lifetime, or the equivalent of taking over two million cars off the road. Last year, utility-scale solar installed a record 2.3 gigawatts.
“President Obama and the Department of Energy are committed to ensuring that all sources of energy are competitive in a carbon constrained economy,”Moniz continued, citing the more than $24 billion in loan guarantees the department has made for clean energy programs as well as the over $8 billion for fossil fuel projects that lower emissions.
The Department of Energy provided the Ivanpah project with a $1.6 billion loan guarantee, which helped attract investors such as NGR Solar and Google, which invested $168 million, according to Peter Davidson, executive director of the DOE’s Loan Program Office.
The DOE’s loan program has been a strong success — despite setbacks such as Solyndra, which threaten to take over the narrative when turned into political fodder. As of last year, losses only accounted for about two percent of the $34 billion portfolio, far less than the $10 billion loan loss reserve set aside by Congress for expected losses.
However, with projects like Ivanpah locking in the one-third renewable energy requirement that California utilities must use by 2020, and out-of-state projects offering potential competition, it’s doubtful that many more massive solar plants in interior California will be built in the near future. Smaller, distributed solar projects are also less impactful on fragile ecosystems and can be placed closer to energy-demanding metropolitans.
“The glory days, if you will, are behind us,” Tom Doyle, president of NRG Solar, the majority owner of Ivanpah, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
California is already the nation’s largest solar market because of its bright skies and state-wide efforts. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the industry adds about $2.6 billion into the economy.
And the state’s lawmakers continue to look for new ways to stay on top of the nation’s clean energy leader board, passing a law last year that would allow state regulators to raise renewable requirements without having to go through the legislature first. Democratic State Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez has also introduced legislation that would facilitate the process of raising renewable goals, possibly by up to 50 percent by 2030.
It basically runs on salt, but nevertheless Crescent Dunes, the new 110 megawatt solar power and energy storage facility near Tonopah, Nevada, is billed as the “most advanced solar plant in the world” on top of laying claim to being the largest facility of its kind in the world.
Now that construction is complete, the commissioning phase is underway so this is a good time to catch up and see what all the excitement is about.
We’re particularly interested in this project because we helped finance it and so did you, if you pay federal income tax. We’re not talking Kickstarter or Indiegogo either. In 2011 we taxpayers backed a $737 million Department of Energy loan to SolarReserve, the project developer.
That puts you and me in the same league as other project investors, the global engineering firm ACS Cobra and the financial services giant Santander, which was named Sustainable Global Bank of the Year last year. Not bad, right?
The Salt Battery
Now, about that salt battery. Crescent Dunes represents the next generation of solar power plants, in which integrated thermal energy storage in the form of molten salt enables the plant to keep churning out electricity long after dark.
The storage feature enables the plant to smooth out spikes that are characteristic of solar energy, not only day-night cycles but also smaller bumps like weather and cloud cover.
Go ahead and pat yourself on the back for this one, too. Our Energy Department laid the foundation for cost-effective molten salt energy storage for solar power plants back in the 1990′s with two demo plants using a “solar salt” composed of sodium nitrate and potassium (you can read all about it in this 2013 NREL report on molten salt).
The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project
In terms of efficiency, Crescent Dunes represents a step up from the demo plants. More than ten thousand ground-mounted mirrors called heliostats collect solar energy and focus it on a central tower, where molten salt is circulated. The heated salt goes down to power a steam turbine, which generates the electricity.
The molten salt also serves as a “salt battery,” storing energy in the form of heat. When the heliostats are not contributing fresh solar energy, retained heat in the molten salt will continue to produce enough steam to generate electricity for about six hours.
With construction complete, the initial shakedown phase currently under way includes energizing the grid connection and other electrical systems. The heliostats are also undergoing the first stages of calibration for maximum efficiency.
The next steps include a number of stages that are common among conventional power plants, including revving up pathways for water, air, steam, and cooling.
SolarReserve points out, though, that among other differences the dry cooled condenser sported by Crescent Dunes will result in far less water consumption than conventional steam power plants.
The plant is expected to get up to speed later this year and when it does, the utility NV Energy already has dibs on 100 percent of its 500,000 MWh per year, which is enough electricity for 75,000 homes during peak periods.
US Solar Industry Races Ahead While Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Crumbles
Not for nothing, but while we’re on the subject of record-breaking solar power plants supported by us taxpayers, just yesterday the Energy Department held a dedication ceremony for another showpiece for US solar tech leadership, the Ivanpah concentrating solar power plant in California.
Facilities like Crescent Dunes and Ivanpah are not impact free, of course, especially when it comes to the construction supply chain.
However, there is no disputing the fact that once they are up and running, solar facilities do not require the kind of destructive energy harvesting operations required of fossil fuel power plants, and they do not produce the emissions that result from burning fossil fuels.
A recent series of events involving the fossil fuel infrastructure also underscores another indisputable fact, which is that infrastructure crumbles.
There are always going to be infrastructure episodes even under a best case scenario, where ample public and private resources are dedicated to efficient monitoring, troubleshooting, maintenance, and repair.
There is increasing evidence, though, that the US fossil fuel infrastructure has not been attended to, and it’s not getting any younger. Examples from the past few weeks include the Elk River coal washing chemical spill, the Dan River coal ash spill, the Kanawha River coal slurry spill, and a huge gas explosion in a Louisiana-to-New-York gas line that put an entire rural Kentucky county in a state of emergency (fortunately with no lives lost — imagine if that had happened in a more populated area…).
Speaking of gas, hop on over to the Journal of Science and take a look at some research on what’s been leaking out from our aging natural gas infrastructure (h/t: grist.org).
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+
When the world thinks of countries that could go 100 percent renewable, the immediate thoughts go to islands with solar and storage, hydro and geothermal rich countries such as Iceland, or even wind and wave-rich countries like Scotland.
One of the last economies imagined going fully renewable would be India, the rising economic giant that is still yet to connect several hundred million people to its mostly coal-fired grid, and is expected to have the highest growth of electricity consumption. But according to environmental group WWF, India could reach a goal of 100 percent renewables by 2050.
The study examines the possibility of a near 100% Renewable Energy Scenario (REN) for India by the middle of the century against a reference scenario (REF) in which the economy is likely to be dependent primarily on fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas.
WWF says that to get there India must make some large-scale changes to get on the right track as soon as possible. According to the report, aggressive energy efficiency improvements alone can bring in savings of up to 59 percent (by both the supply and demand sides) by mid-century.
Biofuels are set to play a large role, especially in the transport sector accounting for nearly 90 percent of the industry’s requirements. According to WWF the third-generation biofuels in question are currently still in R&D phase and for the plan to go accordingly they must become commercially viable within the next two decades.
Overall, biofuels account for 23 percent of the total commercial energy supply, most of the transportation needs. Solar thermal accounts for much of industry’s heating needs, and the electricity supply increases nearly 8 fold, with wind contributing the largest component.
The report says the reference scenario depicts an unsustainable, polluting and relatively inefficient energy future in 2051. The renewable scenario, on the other hand, presents a modern, cleaner and highly efficient India and shows that it is, in principle, theoretically feasible to achieve close to 90 percent penetration of renewable energy sources in the energy mix by 2051.
“However, there are still many unresolved questions in the REN scenario related to resource potentials, availability, commercial viability of alternative options, policy and finance mobilization, barriers of cultural and technological lock-ins, etc,” it says.
“Several feasibility studies are, therefore, needed to lay the basis for moving toward the REN scenario; these have not yet been carried out. There are many interventions that would be necessary to remove various barriers and to achieve higher levels of renewable energy deployment in India.”
Concentrated solar thermal technologies, many of which are currently still in the research and development phase, will take on a large chunk of the nations electricity needs as well as meeting thermal demand in industries that require temperatures below 700°C.
Wind is also set to push India towards its 100 percent goal. Currently India has no estimates of its offshore wind potential but the WWF predicts that it could have up to 170 GW installed by 2051.
Rural households will be forced to change their cooking habits, meeting their needs through improved cook stoves while urban households switch to electrical based cooking.
In 2010, fossil fuels accounted for 74 percent of India’s total energy consumed as well as being the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide. India’s greenhouse gas emissions have also steadily risen by 2.9 percent each year between 1994 and 2007.
Much of the rural population still relies on biomass (such as firewood and agro-residue) for much of its basic cooking needs (around 24.6 percent of the primary energy supply) as well as using kerosene for lighting purposes.
Coal currently accounts for 42.4 percent of India’s total primary energy demand in 2010, with the national rail network being the largest coal consumer before 1975 – now overtaken by the power sector (87.7 per cent of total consumption).
Electricity alone plays a crucial role in improving levels of human development and the quality of modern life – with a strong positive link between human development, economic growth and growth in energy and infrastructure.
To sustain India’s own growth it requires large amounts of energy, with little oil reserves and much of its large coal reserves being inaccessible due to technological, social or geological factors, the country has many push factors to get its renewable base up and running. Due to the low oil reserves India has a high import dependence making it more economically vulnerable and well as supply issues.
India started its National Solar Mission in 2010 and is aiming to get 20 GW of grid connected solar power by 2020. As well as this, the Mission is promoting 2,000 MW of off-grid applications; including 20 million solar lighting systems and 20 million square metres of solar thermal collector area by 2022.
In general, India has a vast potential for solar power generation, with about 58 percent of the country’s total land area receiving an annual global insolation about 5 kWh/m2/day. These areas with 5 kWh/m2/day or above can generate at least 77 W/m2 at 16 per cent efficiency.
Rooftop PV is likely to play a major role in both rural and urban areas with residential, agricultural and industrial priorities reducing the amount of available land for solar programs.
It was estimated that almost 30 percent of industrial processes in India require heat below 250°C which can be supplied with heat from solar thermal concentrators. Temperatures below 80°C can be met through solar air heaters and solar water heaters. Industries – with the exception of iron, steel, cement and fertilizer – could in theory shift to CSP based heating.
Wind energy in India currently ranks second to hydro in renewable energy’s generating electricity. With 17,700 MW of installed capacity India’s rank in harnessing wind energy is fifth in the world after USA, China, Germany and Spain. Over the period of 1992-2010 the wind energy installed capacity in India witnesses an annual growth rate of 37 percent.
According to the Centre for Wind Energy Technology, most of India’s wind energy is concentrated in five states – Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The WWF estimates that India’s total wind potential in megawatts stands at 49,130 at 50 metres, when taken up to 80 metres the reading more than doubles at 102,788 MW.
Hydropower is also being considered, with estimates around 148GW of energy potential. Two rivers, Brahmaputra and Indus, have the highest potential, with only 11 and 50 per cent respectively being utilized thus far.
India’s first tidal power project, with a 3.75 MW capacity, is being set up as well as the Kapasar project which involves building a 30 km-long dam. A recent study cited in the report suggested that also tidal power generation is feasible in certain areas it may not be commercially viable due to diesel costs. Currently, The Government plans to build 7 MW of grid-connected ocean tidal power plans in its 12thfive-year plan.
India’s geothermal potential is around 10,600 MW, distributed across various states and in 2009 the country’s geothermal power capacity stood at 10.7 GW. Although geothermal power development is restricted to tectonically active regions, and seeing as India lacks volcanic activity on its mainland, it also faces issues such as costs of drilling and transmission of energy.
Comparing the REF’s and REN’s final energy demands in 2050 highlights not only a stark mix of energy uses but also efficiency levels. In 2051 the REF is approximated to have increased the countries’ energy demand up to 2,545 Mtoe when compared to the REN sitting at 1,461 Mtoe – highlighting an overall energy savings of 43 percent.
Modeling done by the WWF has estimated that the total undiscounted technology investment cost for the renewables scenario is 42 per cent more than the reference (fossil-fuel) scenario, requiring 544 trillion Indian Rupees from 2011 to 2051. Although the figure sounds quite high it is only around 10 percent higher than if India was to stick to its reference scenario.
In the renewables scenario, India will have almost a quarter more electrical generation capacity (in GW) than if it continues along the reference scenario path. Furthermore, in 2051 the renewables scenario will yield less than one billion tonnes of carbon emissions, compared to the reference scenario with almost 12 billion tonnes.
WWF highlights that although the renewables scenario is preferred it will not be easy for government to get there, recommending various policy options available including; tax holidays for renewable energy uptake, creating incentives for new projects, enhancing R&D, increasing the budgetary allocation, pricing energy and technology for efficiency and strengthening policy and regulatory set-ups.