Long before the sun rises, computers aim five square miles of mirrors to reflect the first rays of dawn onto one of three 40-story towers rising above the desert floor.
The 356,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, focus so much light on the towers that they pulsate with a blinding white light.
At the top of each tower is an enormous boiler where the sun’s energy heats water to more than 1,000 degrees, creating steam that spins electricity-generating turbines.
Ivanpah is the largest facility of its kind in the world. Unlike conventional solar plants, whose panels collect sunlight and convert it into energy through photovoltaic cells, the mirrors here follow the sun as it arcs across the sky, reflecting energy rather than absorbing it.
The effect is stunning to the eye.
Outlined against the backdrop of the Clark Mountains, the Ivanpah power plant shimmers like a mirage, in full view of motorists on Interstate 15 heading to Las Vegas.
After nearly four years of construction that killed desert tortoises, burned the feathers off passing birds and mowed down thousands of acres of native flora, Ivanpah officially opened last month with a gala that included a rock band and a horde of dignitaries — Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz among them.
Despite the gaiety, the event was tinged with the recognition that Ivanpah could be the last of its kind in the U.S. The plummeting price of photovoltaic solar panels, cheaper natural gas and evaporating federal assistance have made it financially shaky to embark on such large-scale projects.
Officials from New Jersey-based NRG Energy Inc., which co-owns the plant, stated flat-out that if not for a federal loan guarantee, the $2.2-billion project would not have been built.
The last of those government breaks, an investment tax credit, expires in 2016. NRG and BrightSource Energy, which designed the plant, have slashed their once-ambitious slate of projects in the U.S. and say that they are taking their business to more favorable markets in China, Africa and the Middle East.
NRG Energy’s chief executive, David Crane, remarked at an energy summit in New York last spring that the trend to larger solar plants was “idiotic.”
Ivanpah began producing power to the grid in January, albeit intermittently.
According to the state’s Independent System Operator, the plant provided no power on some days and 20% to 40% of capacity on others.
Officials with NRG said the reduced power output was just a matter of “growing pains,” adding that they were pleased with Ivanpah’s performance during commissioning.
In winter months, they said, the plant will be expected to operate at 20% of its capacity; during peak months, it will deliver about 45% of its 370-megawatt maximum, in line with industry norms.
It was never certain that Ivanpah would ever get up and running. Detractors harped that such a large concentrated solar power plant had never been built.
Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc. had emerged from the bankruptcy of its parent company and required a $1.6-billion federally guaranteed loan to finance construction. Like other renewable energy projects, the company negotiated power purchase agreements with major utilities at rates double that of conventional energy plants.
Some conservation groups questioned the choice of the site, pointing out a suite of threatened and endangered species in the region and asking the federal government to rescind its lease on 3,500 acres.