Report: Government-backed solar power costs 161 percent more than coal power

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Obama administration heaped praise on the world’s largest solar thermal power facility, which began sending energy to customers in California on Thursday.

The 392 megawatt Ivanpah solar facility was hailed as a grand achievement, but the administration neglected delivering solar power to consumers is much more expensive than coal.

The Ivanpah solar thermal facility in California’s Mojave Desert is the largest in the world, but it comes with a high cost. To start, the facility received $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the Obama administration in 2011 — about 73 percent of the project’s total costs, according to BrightSource Energy. Ivanpah is part of President Obama’s plan to push more green energy use to take on global warming.

“This project speaks for itself,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “Just look at the 170,000 shining heliostat mirrors and the three towers that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty.”

“Ivanpah is the largest solar thermal energy facility in the world with 392 MW of capacity — meaning it can produce enough renewable electricity to power nearly 100,000 homes,” Moniz added.

But Moniz neglects to mention the relatively high cost of generating solar power as opposed to getting power from coal or natural gas.

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 Cape Breton Post notes that some worry about the environmental impact of the Ivanpah facility, which stretches over 3,500 acres of federal land and has nearly 350,000 computer-controlled mirrors to reflect sunlight at boilers sitting on top of 459-foot towers. The boilers create steam when heated, which then creates power that is sent to customers in California.

The massive solar thermal facility now sits on land once roamed by desert tortoises and coyotes and has sparked concerns over the environmental trade off between preserving the western lands and promoting green energy. Environmentalists are in the midst of a lawsuit against federal agencies that reviewed the Ivanpah project.

“Do we really need to have these giant plants first, or is it better to generate solar power on people’s roofs, the place it’s going to be used?” asked Michael Connor, California director of the Western Watershed Project.

The California Energy Commission even acknowledged Ivanpah’s environmental impacts, concluding that the solar plant would impose “significant impacts on the environment” but that “the benefits the project would provide override those impacts.”

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