The Ivanpah Valley in the Mojave Desert hosts the world’s largest solar thermal energy plant. The solar plant is in a bid to expand the generation of renewable energy from US federal land. The plant took over six years to construct. It utilizes boilers on top of three towers, located 500 feet above ground.
The boilers generate steam that runs turbines for electricity generation. Giant reflective mirrors located at the base of each tower heat the boilers by redirecting the sun’s heat energy towards the gigantic boilers. The boilers have potential to generate over 377 megawatts of electricity. This is enough to power over 140,000 homes. This more than double of the previous world record held by the Extresol power stations in southern Spain (150 megawatts each).
Before construction could begin, the contractors were threatened by desert tortoise species which were found at the site. The tortoise species (Gopherus agassizii) was once found all over the deserts in the West. However, the continued decline in the species’ population has alarmed scientists. Workers at the Ivanpah project ended up relocating more than 150 tortoises although initial estimates indicated there were less than 20 tortoises. BrighSource, the organization in charge of the project reported that they would first put them in pens before moving them to a nearby habitat. It received $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees to carry out the relocation.
The future of desert solar projects
Despite the failure of some large-scale projects in California, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) indicates that it will continue to prioritize such projects. This is in line with a call by the president for use of public land for generation of up to 10,000 megawatts of green energy from federal lands by 2020. There have been concerns raised on the fragility of desert ecosystems. However, supporters of such mega projects argue they will ensure a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels. These, they argue are already doing more harm, on a larger scale to the atmosphere and the entire world.
The state of California aims to generate about 33% of all its power from renewable sources by 2020. Besides the Ivanpah project, there are many other projects designed for electricity generation using steam power. The Stateline and Silver State South projects are also from the First Solar Company are estimated to generate 300 and 350 megawatts when complete. Further North in Panoche Valley, there is a proposed solar farm that could generate nearly 400 megawatts of power.
Here is a video made during the construction of the Ivanpah solar thermal power tower.
Construction of the Ivanpah project and other such projects has had some unintended consequences. For workers, seeing birds with a trail of smoke is now all too familiar. Environmentalists are worried what effects this could have in the long term. Companies involved in solar farms business are however proposing research into ways to scare away the birds. In the meantime, they are funding programs such as neutering feral cats that kill thousands of bird wildlife each year. The US Fish and Wildlife Services department has warned that such power plants hold the highest lethality potential. Projects proponents argue that the overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a worth the sacrifice.
The delicate balance between protecting wildlife and generating green energy needs serious re-examination. Already, it is creating a split among environmental groups. However, this is a challenge that is surmountable with a bit of innovation. Groups on either side of the divide need to come together to come up with an innovative solution. This will ensure the world finally quits chocking on dangerous fossil fuels and that bird species in the Mojave Desert can still have a place to call home.
Gordon's expertise in the area of industrial energy efficiency and alternative energy. He is an experienced electrical engineer with a Masters degree in Alternative Energy technology. He is the co-founder of several renewable energy media sites including Solar Thermal Magazine.