Plant shines spotlight on growing solar industry

Modified: February 13, 2014 at 11:08 pm •  Published: February 14, 2014
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A windy stretch of the Mojave Desert once roamed by tortoises and coyotes has been transformed by hundreds of thousands of mirrors into the largest solar power plant of its type in the world, a milestone for a growing industry testing the balance between wilderness conservation and the pursuit of green energy.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, formally opened Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles.

“The Ivanpah project is a shining example of how America is becoming a world leader in solar energy,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement after attending a dedication at the site. “This project shows that building a clean-energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions and fosters American innovation.”

Let the sun shine in

The $2.2 billion complex of three generating units, owned by NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy, can produce nearly 400 megawatts — enough power for 140,000 homes. It began making electricity last year.

Ivanpah is being described as a marker for the United States’ emerging solar industry. While solar accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s power output, thousands of projects from large, utility-scale plants to small production sites are under construction or being planned, particularly across the sun-drenched Southwest.

The opening of Ivanpah is “a dawn of a new era in power generation in the United States,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

The plant’s dedication comes as government continues to push for development of greener, cleaner power.

President Barack Obama has mounted a second-term drive to combat climate change, proposing first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. His plan aims to help move the U.S. from a coal-dependent past into a future fired by wind and solar power, nuclear energy and natural gas.

According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, the cost of building and operating a new solar thermal power plant over its lifetime is greater than generating natural gas, coal or nuclear power. It costs a conventional coal plant $100, on average, to produce a megawatt-hour of power, but that figure is $261 for solar thermal power, according to 2011 estimates. The figures do not account for incentives such as state or federal tax credits that can affect the cost.