Another Solyndra? Lawmakers Worry This Obama-Backed Solar Project Could Fail

REUTERS/Steve Marcus

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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House lawmakers grilled a Interior Department official over the green energy projects on federal lands, in particular taking aim at the troubled Ivanpah solar energy plant.

Georgia Republican Rep. Jody Hice even suggested Ivanpah, which has trouble living up to its contracts, could fail and potentially leave taxpayers on the hook for $1.6 billion in unpaid loan guarantees.

“So we have Ivanpah, for example, one of those companies — $1.6 billion dollars, three times that of Solyndra in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy,” Hice said during a hearing Wednesday before questioning Mike Nedd, who oversees energy projects for the Bureau of Land Management.

Hice was responding to news that California regulators were on the verge of shutting down Ivanpah  for not producing the amount of promised electricity. The plant only generated 45 percent of expected power in 2014 and only 68 percent in 2015, according to government data.

“And, again, they have been unable to meet their obligations. So, it looks very likely we are going to see another Solyndra,” Hice said. “And so, again, the taxpayers are going to be on the hook, and they will be the ones suffering with it all.”

California officials did give Ivanpah until the end of July to comply with a power purchase agreement it has with the utility Pacific Gas and Electric, but it’s not clear if the plant will meet its promises because of a recent accident that shut down one of its boiler towers.

Ivanpah is co-owned by BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google, and 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 plant soon ran into engineering issues and “an inordinate number of partly cloudy days,” an NRG spokesman told CleanTechnica. Ivanpah only produced about one-quarter of its expected output in the months after it opened, and they were forced to ask the government for a $539 million federal grant to help pay off the $1.6 billion loan.

NRG told CleanTechnica they have delivered PG&E 97 percent of the electrons they had contracted to buy — at a price of $200 per megawatt hour. NRG said it had largely solved the engineering problems causing Ivanpah to underperform.

Environmentalists have also attacked the project for killing thousands of birds since it opened. Many birds were incinerated by the intense heat being reflected off Ivanpah’s 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.

“Forensic Lab staff observed a falcon or falcon-like bird with a plume of smoke arising from the tail as it passed through the flux field,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report from 2014.

“Immediately after encountering the flux, the bird exhibited a controlled loss of stability and altitude but was able to cross the perimeter fence before landing,” FWS reported.

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