CA Regulators Extend Lifeline To Obama-Backed Solar Plant — Won’t Say How Much It’ll Cost Ratepayers

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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California regulators gave a massive federally-supported solar thermal power plant more time to ramp up the amount of energy it produces, but won’t disclose how much the deal will cost taxpayers.

The Ivanpah solar plant will now have until the end of July to comply with a power purchase agreement it has with the utility Pacific Gas and Electric to produce solar power needed to comply with California’s green energy mandate.

The California Public Utilities Commission subsequently refused to disclose how much the deal would cost state ratepayers. The PUC’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates stood with other consumer groups who argued “customers should no longer pay for costs associated” with Ivanpah, according to a PUC decision.

The PUC dismissed the ratepayer advocate’s concerns and approved PG&E’s plan to throw Ivanpah a lifeline, though the utility regulator wrote the “[a]ctual costs of the Forbearance Agreements are confidential at this time.”

Ivanpah currently produces electricity at $200 per megawatt hour — that’s six times the cost of natural-gas fired electricity.

Ivanpah had been woefully under-producing the power it promised to generate for PG&E, and the $2.2 billion solar plant would have been forced to shut down if the California Public Utilities Commission had not extended the timeline it had to produce more power.

Ivanpah is co-owned by BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google, and the project was mostly funded with $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department. The project was even hailed by the Obama administration as the future of clean energy.

“This project speaks for itself,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said when the project went online in early 2014. “Just look at the 170,000 shining heliostat mirrors and the three towers that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty.”

But the project was beset by huge problems from the beginning. For starters, it only produced a fraction of the energy it promised to utilities. The Wall Street Journal reported Ivanpah only generated 45 percent of expected power in 2014 and only 68 percent in 2015. The solar plant even uses natural gas to supplement variable solar energy output.

Environmentalists attacked the project after it was reported thousands of birds were being incinerated by the intense heat coming off Ivanpah’s more than 170,000 large mirrors, or heliostats.

The Associated Press cited statistics presented by environmentalists in 2014 that “about a thousand… to 28,000” birds are incinerated by Ivanpah’s heliostats every year.

Pilots have also reported seeing a “nearly blinding” glare emanating from Ivanpah while flying over the solar plant. The Sandia National Laboratory reported in 2014 Ivanpah was “sufficient to cause significant ocular impact (potential for after-image) up to a distance of ~6 miles.”

“It should be noted that two of the authors who were in the helicopter qualitatively confirmed these results after observing the glare,” Sandia reported. “The pilot acknowledged that the glare was very bright, but he also stated that it did not impair his flying ability since he was aware of the glare and avoided looking in that direction when flying over [Ivanpah].”

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