Massive Solar Electricity Plant Provides Power To California Homes

BrightSource Energy says the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is doing just fine, and that all along the company expected the “power tower” concentrating solar plant in California to take four years to hit full stride. Meanwhile, the latest federal reports indicate that in the first three quarters of the year the plant produced a total of nearly 300,000 megawatt-hours of electricity, sold at an average price of about $185 per MWh.

Breaking Energy reported on October 29 that Ivanpah, having generated 254,263 MWh in its first eight months of operation (January through August, based on Energy Information Administration data), was on course to fall well short of the annual 1,065,000 MWh anticipated by the U.S. Department of Energy, which had backed Ivanpah with a $1.6 billion loan guarantee.

That story set off a feeding frenzy among conservative media, who conjured the notion that Ivanpah’s owners were seeking a “bailout” to pay off their loans because the plant was performing poorly. But as BrightSource notes in a new blog post, entitled “The Top Five Things Some Media Can’t Seem to Remember about Ivanpah,” the “bailout” is simply an upfront payment that qualifying commercial energy plants are allowed to take in lieu of the Investment Tax Credit. Plus, the deal with the DOE requires Ivanpah to use the tax-credit money to pay down its loans.

The BrightSource post also discusses Ivanpah’s bird and natural gas issues – complex subjects that some news outlets have struggled to get right.

On the more salient point of production at the plant and how it compares with expectations, BrightSource says the “annual expected generation noted by some in the media is for the mature year performance, which will occur at the 4-year mark of plant operations in 2018.”

In email exchanges preceding our original story, BrightSource never mentioned a four-year timetable for the plant to get up to full speed, although the company did say that it “knew there might be some growing pains along the way.”

As for where the plant stands now, “On an aggregate basis, for the month of September, we are above the cumulative annual guaranteed level,” the company says in the blog post. Responding to questions about that statement, BrightSource explained in an email that September’s performance had lifted Ivanpah’s production rate and that the plant was now on course to meet its annual “performance obligation.”

Massive Solar Electricity Plant Provides Power To California Homes

New quarterly reports filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission yield a little more insight into how the plant is doing, taking us through September for production and providing three more months of price information.

The FERC reports indicate that Ivanpah had generated 299,298 megawatt-hours of electricity by the end of September – although the California Energy Commission put the figure at 296,736. The FERC reports don’t break the info down by month, but the CEC said Ivanpah generated 43,751 MWh in September, well off its top month of June (64,275 MWh, according to the CEC), but about equal to its next-best months, May (44,784 MWh) and August (44,070).

BrightSource maintains that subpar weather held back performance at points this year, but reiterated in its blog post that it is “confident that over time, the sun at Ivanpah will be more than sufficient for the plant to meet its expected performance targets.”

The only publicly known “targets” are the DOE figure of 1,065,000 MWh, and a figure of 975,000 MWh/year culled from documents related to the plant’s power purchase agreements (BrightSource said the DOE figure was for gross production, while the PPA figure was for net production). In answering questions from the Associated Press, the CEC said the plant “is currently producing about half of its expected annual output for 2014.”

The Ivanpah plant consists of three units – Unit 1 has a gross capacity of 126 megawatts and the other units are 133 MW apiece. Although the plant sent its first power to the grid in September 2013, Ivanpah was handed off from builder to operator just before the end of last year and according to a filing with the CEC, “ISEGS reached reliable steady-state production of electricity at the rated capacity and declared commercial operations under the power purchase agreement on January 10, 2014 for Unit 1, January 31, 2014 for Unit 2, and January 15, 2014 for Unit 3.”

The FERC reports show a fair amount of production variability between the units, with Unit 2, despite the slightly later commissioning, the star performer so far, generating 113,606 MWh in its first nine months. Unit 3 has produced 97,538 MWh and Unit 1 88,153 MWh. Pacific Gas & Electric buys the electricity from Units 1 and 3 and Southern California Edison buys the electricity from Unit 2.

Total electricity sales from Ivanpah through September were $55,263,140.58, an average of $184.64/MWh, according to the FERC reports. In 2013 and 2014, planned large-scale solar photovoltaic plants – competitors to concentrating solar power systems like Ivanpah when the CSP systems don’t come with energy storage (again like Ivanpah) – were entering into contracts to sell their power for an average of $50/MWh, according to the latest federal report.