The Ivanpah solar plant went online last week, but the cost to wildlife–particularly birds–won’t be known for at least two more years.
Reports that the giant solar thermal array featuring more than 300,000 reflective panels and steam-driven turbine towers have been “killing and singeing” birds by heating the air to around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit near the towers, according to reports.
You can view pictures of the deceased birds here.
All power sources involve tradeoffs, but to date, wind and solar have generally avoided discussing the topic, often quickly shifting to pointing out the costs of other energy sources in defending their own environmental impacts.
Policy directives aimed to support the technologies often override such environmental concerns, as they did with Ivanpah:
Ivanpah can be seen as a success story and a cautionary tale, highlighting the inevitable trade-offs between the need for cleaner power and the loss of fragile, open land. The California Energy Commission concluded that while the solar plant would impose “significant impacts on the environment … the benefits the project would provide override those impacts.”
The plant’s effects on birds is the subject of a current two-year study.
But the cost of electricity from solar sources is and will remain higher than other natural resources, like coal, for the foreseeable future, according to the Energy Information Administration:
The Energy Information Administration says that it will cost new solar thermal plants 161 percent more to generate one megawatt hour of power than it costs a coal plant to do in 2018 — despite the costs of solar power being driven downward.
On average, conventional coal plants cost $100 to make one megawatt hour, while solar thermal plants cost $261 for the same amount of power. This data, however, does not take into account the impact of federal, state or local subsidies and mandates on power costs.
The solar thermal installation built by BrightSource Energy received at $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy in 2011. That loan was secured in no small part due to political connections, according to The Heritage Foundation.
Higher electricity costs as a result of policy directives and crony capitalism, something the Solar Energy Industries Association was readily willing to admit:
Resch said a key issue for the industry will be maintaining government policies that encourage development, including tax credits for solar projects that are set to expire in 2016 and government loan guarantees. “The direct result of these policies is projects like Ivanpah,” he said.
Once again, however, the claim that solar energy is a “free” or “no cost” energy source has been upended. Another BrightSource project is receiving similar concerns:
In response to BrightSource’s blueprint for its second big solar farm in Riverside County, near Joshua Tree National Park, biologists working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told state regulators that they were concerned that heat produced by the project could kill golden eagles and other protected species.
“We’re trying to figure out how big the problem is and what we can do to minimize bird mortalities,” said Eric Davis, assistant regional director for migratory birds at the federal agency’s Sacramento office. “When you have new technologies, you don’t know what the impacts are going to be.”
Ivanpah may be the first large utility-scale solar thermal installation in California, and also the last:
Though Ivanpah is an engineering marvel, experts doubt more plants like it will be built in California. Other solar technologies are now far cheaper than solar thermal, federal guarantees for renewable energy projects have dried up, and natural gas-fired plants are much cheaper to build.
That means the private sector must fill the gap at a time when building a natural-gas fired power plant costs about $1,000 per megawatt, a fraction of the $5,500 per megawatt that Ivanpah cost.
“Our job was to kickstart the demonstration of these different technologies,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in an interview high up on one of the plant’s three towers.
The plant is projected to produce approximately 380 megawatts “during the peak hours of the day,” according to BrightSource.
A technology that costs 5.5 times more to build and that delivers electricity that is 161 percent more expensive than coal, and that secures it’s funding through political connections is not the job of the Department of Energy–or taxpayers’ dollars–nor to “kickstart the demonstration of these different technologies.”
Not when it produces just 0.24 percent of the electricity in the United States in November 2013, according to the EIA.
By William Yeatman and Amy Oliver Cooke
As Coloradans we thought we might have to apologize to the rest of the country if President Barack Obama nominated former one-term Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to head the Energy Department. If the President wanted to make electricity costs skyrocket and the eco-left community happy, Ritter was his guy, but the President didn’t pick him.
Despite his dense résumé and desire to cut emissions, however, Moniz can be a polarizing figure in scientific and environmental circles. Few experts deny the value of a scientist as DOE chief, but many fans of renewable energy worry about Moniz’s gusto for natural gas and nuclear power — not to mention his financial ties to the energy industry.
‘We’re concerned that, as energy secretary, Ernest Moniz may take a politically expedient view of harmful fracking and divert resources from solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources vital to avoiding climate disaster,’ Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a recent press release. ‘We’re also concerned that Moniz would be in a position to delay research into the dangers fracking poses to our air, water and climate.’
And the Washington Post reports:
But over the past couple of weeks, many environmentalists and some prominent renewable energy experts have tried to block the nomination of Moniz because of an MIT report supporting “fracking” — as hydraulic fracturing is commonly known — and because major oil and gas companies, including BP, Shell, ENI and Saudi Aramco, provided as much as $25 million each to the MIT Energy Initiative. Other research money came from a foundation bankrolled by shale gas giant Chesapeake Energy.
‘We would stress to Mr. Moniz that an ‘all of the above’ energy policy only means ‘more of the same,’ and we urge him to leave dangerous nuclear energy and toxic fracking behind while focusing on safe, clean energy sources like wind and solar,’ Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement Monday.
The Sierra Club doesn’t have much credibility because financially it was sleeping with the enemy, having taken $26 million from Chesapeake Energy to destroy the market for coal. One place they enjoyed great success was in Colorado with HB 1365, the fuel switching bill and cornerstone of Ritter’s “New Energy Economy.”
Governor Ritter coined the term New Energy Economy for his signature agenda. In practice, his New Energy Economy entails three policies: (1) a Soviet-style green energy production quota; (2) subsidies for green energy producers; and (3) a mandate for fuel switching from coal to natural gas. Renewable energy is more expensive than conventional energy, and natural gas is twice as expensive as coal in Colorado, so these policies inherently inflated the cost of electricity.
Last month, the Independence Institute published the first ever line item expensing of Ritter’s energy policies, and the results were shocking. In 2012, the New Energy Economy cost Xcel Energy (the state’s largest investor-owned utility) ratepayers $484 million, or 18 percent of retail electricity sales.
This princely sum purchased the equivalent of 402 megawatts of reliable capacity generation. By comparison, Xcel had a surplus generating capacity (beyond its reserve margin) in 2012 of 700 megawatts—almost 75 percent more than the New Energy Economy contribution. Thanks to Governor Ritter’s energy policies, Xcel ratepayers in Colorado last year paid almost half a billion dollars for energy they didn’t need.
In addition to implementing expensive energy policies, Governor Ritter also has experience picking losers in the energy industry. In May 2009, Governor Ritter hand-delivered to Secretary Chu a letter in support of a $300 million loan guarantee for Colorado-based Abound Solar, a thin-filmed solar panel manufacturer. In the letter Ritter claimed Abound would “triple production capacity within 12 months, develop a second manufacturing facility within 18 months and hire an additional 1,000 employees.”
Taxpayer money couldn’t keep Abound afloat, which never reached production capacity. After its solar panels suffered repeated failures, including catching fire, Abound declared bankruptcy in early 2012 leaving taxpayers on the hook for nearly $70 million and even more at the state and local level. A former employee explained, “our solar modules worked so long as you didn’t put them in the sun.”
Abound Solar wasn’t the only pound-foolish Stimulus spending associated with Governor Ritter. During his administration, the Colorado Energy Office’s coffers swelled with almost $33 million in stimulus subsidies for weatherization efforts. According to a recent report by the Colorado Office of State Audits, the Ritter administration failed to even maintain an annual budget for the program. As a result, the audit was unable to demonstrate whether the money had been spent in a cost effective manor. All told, the auditor found that the energy agency could not properly account for almost $127 million in spending during the Ritter administration.
Ritter told the Fort Collins Coloradoan that the scathing audit accusing the agency under his watch of shoddy management practices was not the reason the President passed over him for Energy Secretary.
The former Governor is especially proud of the job creation associated with the New Energy Economy. To be sure, throwing taxpayer money at any industry would create jobs. The problem occurs when the public money spigot runs dry. In this context, an October 22, 2012 top fold, front page headline in the Denver Post is illuminating: “New energy” loses power; A series of setbacks cost over 1,000 jobs and threatens the state’s status in the industry. To put it another way, in the two years since Ritter left office, his New Energy Economy has atrophied in lockstep with the reduction in public funding.
Ritter has taken to proselytizing for the gospel of expensive energy. He founded the Center for the New Energy Economy, the purpose of which is to, “provide policy makers, governors, planners and other decision makers with a road map that will accelerate the nationwide development of a New Energy Economy.” He even brought with him the former head of the beleaguered energy office Tom Plant to work for him as a “policy advisor.”
So far Ritter’s bad energy policy has remained largely within the Centennial State, and, for now, that’s where it will stay. With the choice of Moniz, the rest of the country can breathe a sigh of relief. For Coloradans, we’re still stuck with him.
William Yeatman is the Assistant Director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Denver, Colorado. Amy Oliver Cooke is the Director of the Energy Policy Center for the Independence Institute