A Visit to Ivanpah during RE+ 2023

I had the privilege of visiting the 392 MWac Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in September with solar industry titans Craig Cornelius, George Hershman, Sheldon Kimber, Howard Wenger, and Robert Petrina. We took a break from RE+, skipping the casinos and parties to visit Ivanpah – at one time the world’s largest solar thermal plant, an hour from Las Vegas.

The plant has 173k heliostats focusing sunlight on 3 towers, with an astonishing tracking accuracy of about 0.1 degrees. With a concentration ratio up to 1000x, superheated steam operates reheat turbines at 550 deg C, with natural gas as a backup and no storage. When first commissioned 10 years ago, the plant took negative press for missing production targets. But the talented operators of NRG Energy, led over recent years by Michael Monroe, kept improving performance, and by 2020 the plant produced 816M MWh, over 91% of annual production target, not bad for serial #1 of this design. The project is an engineering marvel created by BrightSource Energy with support from Bechtel Corporation and sponsorship by NRG. Huge shout out to Israel Krozier, Yoel Gilon, Shmuel Huss, Jack Stark, John Woolard, Arnold Goldman, David Crane, all teams that made this happen.

During project development in the early 2000s, solar thermal and PV systems were both in the $5-6/Wac cost range, and both were receiving R&D support from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). It is easy to look back with hindsight and say that semiconductors & the economies of mass production realized in PV, would prevail against thermodynamics and the economies of scale that comprise solar thermal. With my former colleagues at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, we had anticipated that possibility in this IEEE paper https://lnkd.in/g2VAxf6t a decade prior when published in 1991. That said, Ivanpah continues producing clean solar power, and to a first order, achieved its goals of technology validation and energy production.