Solar Power Plants – Far from Pristine

Solar Plant 2One way to success is to highlight a “crisis” and then pile on “solutions.” Al Gore made climate change the biggest crisis ever, and solutions just poured in. Terms like alternative energy, carbon footprint, sustainable development, walkable cities, transit corridors just sprang up. And government (taxpayers) started subsidizing anything that looked like it fought climate change. Here is a story about a federally subsidized solar power plant in California, Ivanpah.

In order to meet its production goals, Ivanpah needs to burn natural gas at night to keep the system primed and to heat water used in tower boilers. It also needs to burn natural gas when the sun is not shinning. Natural gas, although cleaner than coal, still is not “clean” energy.

So, how come Ivanpah qualifies under state rules as an alternative energy source? Because the natural gas is burned at night. Daytime burning of natural gas is what counts as bad.  This quote from a good article on the subject in The Press Enterprise Local expresses the frustration that can come with the realization of how solar power plants work:

Given the high-level of public investment, the plant’s natural gas use should have been better publicly disclosed before the project was approved, said David Lamfrom, California desert manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“The bottom line is the public didn’t expect this project to consume this much natural gas,” Lamfrom said in a telephone interview. “We did not have full knowledge that this was what we were signing up for.”

Not having full knowledge of what we are signing up for is the rule, not the exception. Deciders on the Ivanpah subsidies were correct that solar power is a good thing, since it does not use by itself finite resources such as coal and leaves a cleaner footprint than coal. However, they should also have known that we are years away from finding a realistic way to store solar energy for times when the sun does not shine, necessitating the use of natural gas for volume solar power production.