Has Invanpah Slammed the Door on Concentrated Solar?

Concentrated solar energy – power towers using vast fields of mirrors to focus heat from the sun on a water-filled target, making steam, generating electric power and also liquefying salts to provide thermal energy storage – was a hot (excuse the pun) technology a few years ago. Today, it may be a dead end, as the $2.2 billion, 377-MW Ivanpah project in the California desert continues to underperform.

Last month the California Public Utilities Commission gave Ivanpah (POWER’s 2014 “Plant of the Year”)  a reprieve to live up to its contract to supply power to Pacific Gas and Electric. If the plant can’t perform, it faces the possibility of a shutdown. The plant’s owners – BrightSource Energy, NRG, and Google — agreed to pay PG&E an unspecified amount to compensate for Ivanpah’s underperformance. In return, PG&E won’t declare that the power purchase agreement is in default.

Consumer interests wanted PG&E to nix the contract or negotiate a lower price. According to the Motley Fool investment website, Ivanpah got 20 cents/KWh in the summer of 2015 for the project’s electricity and 13.5 cents the rest of the year. That compares to the average solar system in California booking 5 cents/KWh for new contracts.

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