There’s long been a sense of relief for drivers as they crest Mountain Pass and start their descent along northbound Interstate 15 into Ivanpah Valley. As Primm’s trio of casinos comes into view, traveling Las Vegans get a subconscious boost in knowing they’re almost home, while visitors perk up as they realize they’re closing in on their vacation.
But more than those casinos dot the horizon today. Off the west side of the freeway, near the foothills, appears what looks at first to be a lake in Ivanpah Valley’s long-dry lake bed. As drivers get closer, they realize the lake is actually a sea of mirrors that seem to tilt and turn in waves. And those mirrors surround three massive towers, each with a white glow that’s brighter than the nighttime lights from nearby Whiskey Pete’s.
There’s little in the way of signage to tell folks what they’re seeing. So drivers frequently pull off the road and start a brief trek through the Mojave Desert, wandering closer with their cameras until they encounter a fence or a security guard.
“It’s visually stunning, and everyone wants to know what it is,” says Jeff Holland, spokesman for the company NRG Renew. “People ask, ‘Is it a military installation? Is it a UFO tracking site?’”
Such confusion is one reason why NRG Renew is in the process of building a visitors center, which will be operated by the Bureau of Land Management and should open at the site this summer. The center will include plaques and brochures to let people know they’re looking at Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the largest thermal solar power plant in the world.
Nearly a decade ago, Brightsource Energy began to develop the $2.2 billion plant on 3,500 acres of public land just southwest of the Nevada/California border. (Five years ago, NRG and Google joined Brightsource on the project.) The 392-megawatt plant recently marked its first full year of operation, supplying renewable energy to tens of thousands of California homes and businesses through power-purchase agreements with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric. It’s drawn interest not only from looky-loos, but from energy researchers, documentarians and even the rock band The Fray, which featured Ivanpah’s solar fields in the video for “Love Don’t Die” and on the cover of its 2014 album Helios.
Workers from Bechtel, the construction management company hired to build Ivanpah Solar Electric at the tail end of the Great Recession, consider the plant “this generation’s Hoover Dam,” Holland says. The dam was the largest project of its kind and subject to the same scrutiny when Bechtel helped build it during the Great Depression. Today, Hoover Dam is considered a feat of engineering, generating hydroelectric power while also becoming a popular tourist attraction.
The projects also share another legacy: While both create clean energy, it comes at a cost. For Hoover Dam, stopping natural flooding of the Colorado River forever changed the downstream ecosystem, contributing to the decline of area marine and plant life. For Ivanpah, covering 3,500 acres of desert with mirrors and power towers has affected local flora, fauna and views, leaving environmentalists divided over whether the costs of such utility-scale projects outweigh the benefits to the planet.
Developers selected the Ivanpah Valley because of its year-round sunlight, available space and accessibility, with a nearby electrical substation to tap into and public-access roads already in place. The site was also attractive because it was on a list of federally owned land deemed appropriate for such projects, Holland says, with regulators determining there would be minimal impact on the surrounding environment.
Minimal or not, the decision to set up shop in Ivanpah Valley doesn’t sit well with the ecological community.
“The project has actually impacted a lot in that particular area,” says Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch, a Nevada-based naturalist group that’s been studying Ivanpah for six years. “It was a very poor choice of location.”
Other solar farms use photovoltaic panels to convert sunlight directly into electricity. At Ivanpah, more than 300,000 mirrors—each about the size of a garage door—spiral out around three 459-foot power towers. The computer-controlled mirrors track the sun all day, beaming concentrated sunlight up to the towers. The reflected light heats water that circulates through boilers in the towers and creates steam, turning turbines to generate electricity.
Though the project received the green light from regulators in 2010, the site still presented environmental challenges—chiefly that it’s located in a natural habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. As a result, developers reduced the size of the project’s footprint and spent some $56 million to protect the species.
Along with the land developers purchased to build Ivanpah, they also bought more than 7,000 “mitigation acres”—land that’s also a natural desert tortoise habitat, which now can never be developed. And there’s been the ongoing, delicate process of relocating and caring for 91 desert tortoises that had been living at the project site. With help from a team of 25 biologists, NRG is maintaining an “active management tortoise pen” adjacent to the solar field, where another 100 young tortoises are being fed, raised and cared for daily, until they’re old enough to be relocated near the end of 2016. “It looks like a small petting zoo,” Holland says.
Emmerich acknowledges that NRG has hired excellent biologists and they’re doing what they can. But research cited by his group indicates only about half of relocated tortoises ultimately survive.
NRG argues that the project has actually contributed to the growth of the species. In the wild, Holland says, juvenile desert tortoises have a 98 percent mortality rate, with most dying when they’re young. Among the juvenile tortoises Ivanpah biologists are caring for, he says nearly 100 percent have survived.
As a condition of its permitting, NRG has used radio tracking on more than 350 tortoises to collect data aimed at boosting their survival, says Jane Hendron with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The company also must track the juvenile tortoises it will soon release for five years to help researchers learn more about translocating the species.
Then there are the birds.
Whether they’re actually baited by the glowing towers and lake-like mirrors of Ivanpah or just unlucky enough to fly through its solar flux, the results aren’t pretty. Known as “streamers,” the birds seemingly catch fire in midair as they hit a concentrated beam of sunlight that can reach in excess of 1,000 degrees.
As part of a technical advisory committee, NRG staff meets regularly with California regulators to help reduce Ivanpah’s impact on birds, Holland says. Operators now stagger how mirrors are angled when not in use so they look less like a lake that might attract birds and the insects they feed on. The staff is also exploring techniques and devices (including sonar) that have been used to keep birds away from airports.
In the past couple of months, Holland says site operators have been experimenting with a natural solution that’s proving effective, and is even pleasing to smell: Apparently, birds aren’t fans of grape-seed extract, avoiding it the way cats are known to stay away from citrus. So if a flock of birds starts heading for the plant, Holland says they can release a fine mist of grape-seed extract into the air and watch as birds fly around the scented area.
One part of the Ivanpah project that received near-universal praise, even from critics, was how developers handled grading and plant life at the site. Rather than bulldozing thousands of acres as some solar developers have done, Ivanpah’s team only trimmed some of the taller bushes to accommodate its heliostat mirrors. They also worked with the natural contours of the valley, which Holland says actually helped position the mirrors to capture sunlight from all directions. “We tried to be as sensitive as we could,” he says.
Not that there was a real chance NRG could please everyone. Even while acknowledging they appreciate that the project created more than 2,600 temporary construction jobs and 86 permanent jobs, some locals still aren’t happy with Ivanpah’s visual impact. “Being a country boy, I don’t care for it,” says Ellis Handley, who works at the nearby historic Nipton Trading Post. “It’s an eyesore, and it kills birds. It has destroyed the beauty of our desert.”
Drawing support from clean energy advocates, Ivanpah developers predicted the plant would produce more than 1 million megawatt hours at its maturity in 2018. According to data from the California Energy Commission, the plant produced 418,066 megawatt hours at the end of its first year of operation. Federal reports show Ivanpah also used more natural gas than expected (although less than permitted) to keep the plant running when the sun isn’t shining, raising concern about the ongoing use of fossil fuels.
Conservatives have been quick to note these shortfalls because Ivanpah was built with help from federal tax credits and a $1.6 billion construction loan under a program from the Department of Energy. And a few months ago, developers paid more than one-third of the construction loan back, thanks to a $539 million federal grant.
Part of the reason the plant generated less power than capacity is that 2014 was a cloudier-than-average year, Holland says, including a heavy spring rainstorm that left parts of the Ivanpah Valley under a few feet of water for weeks (although the plant wasn’t harmed by the flood). The team also didn’t expect so many lightning strikes, which Holland says hit more than 1,000 of the heliostat mirrors, some of which were damaged or destroyed.
Weather aside, virtually no solar plant hits its capacity out of the gate, says Robert Boehm, a mechanical engineering professor at UNLV and director of the school’s Center for Energy Research. “In any of these kinds of projects, you always have a startup period,” Boehm says, mentioning that operators can spend years tweaking things to figure out how to get the most out of the system.
As an example, Boehm cites a project south of Boulder City that had huge solar troughs (picture pipes cut in half and silvered on the inside). Now shuttered, that project operated for some 20 years. And every year for those 20 years, Boehm says, the performance improved.
Although Ivanpah wasn’t expected to be at full capacity in 2014, Albert Lundeen with the California Energy Commission says it was contracted to be at 29.3 percent of its 392 megawatt capacity. However, Lundeen says the most current records provided by the developer show Ivanpah operated at 12.2 percent in its first year.
Holland notes that NRG actually planned for a four-year ramp-up (hence the 2018 maturity date). And they’ve already learned a lot, he adds, upgrading software so the mirrors can respond faster to changing light circumstances. Since Ivanpah is the largest plant of its kind and the first thermal solar plant NRG has developed, he says they think of it as “serial number one,” with plenty still to learn. “We’ve gotten progressively better, and we have every confidence we’ll be at the level we said we would.”
When drivers crest mountain pass in 2055, the sea of mirrors and white-hot towers of Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will likely be missing from the landscape.
No matter how successful the plant becomes, Ivanpah will one day be dismantled—without concerns, supporters note, about what to do with the kind of hazardous waste that’s leftover at decommissioned nuclear and fossil-fuel plants. While there are optional extensions to the contract, Holland says, “at the end of the 25-year power purchase agreement, we have to turn the entire site back to the condition we found it.”
Until then, Ivanpah will remain synonymous with a high-profile solar plant rather than an obscure desert valley.
Editor Matt Jacob talks our Eco Issue on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.