Google, Mirrors and Dying Birds: Is Ivanpah Evil?

Sarah Ward's picture
Sarah Ward
February 18, 2014

Thursday marked the grand opening of Ivanpah - the first-of-it’s-kind large scale solar thermal plant. But was it worth the cost and is this really where our future is headed?

Ivanpah is up and running... Should it be?
Ivanpah is up and running... Should it be?
Credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr

Like the scene straight out of the 2005 Matthew McConaughey hit Sahara, a monolithic solar thermal project equipped with more than a quarter million mirrors is finally up and running in the Mojave Desert of Southwestern California. After six years of legal battles, environmental challenges and engineering feats, the investment trifecta of Google Inc., BrightSource Energy, and NRG Energy Inc. officially opened the plant, “Ivanpah,” on Thursday with all the corporate fanfare and hoopla of a sweet sixteen, quinceanera and cotillion, combined.

Ivanpah utilizes roughly five square miles of computer-controlled mirrors and three generating units to generate approximately 400 megawatts, or enough power for 140,000 homes.

“This project shows that building a clean-energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions and fosters American innovation,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement after the opening ceremony.

But while the official opening was certainly exciting and full of hope for the future, there has already been an onslaught of mixed reviews by the public and press of the $2.2 billion project. Is it justifiable in regard to the open land and ecosystems that have been compromised? Will it really generate that many jobs? Was it worth the $1.6 billion of federal money when it cost as much as four times a natural gas-fired plant and generates far less electricity? And what about the birds being scorched to death from the mirrors (because, yes, that is a problem)?

There’s also criticism of Ivanpah, and other projects like it, that they present energy loss challenges during transmission that are a nonissue in rooftop photovoltaic solutions, where the energy is created and used on-site. In other words, the question becomes, are these giant sites that compromise so much natural environment really better than multiple smaller sites?

And let’s circle back to the birds. Dozens of species, from hawks to sparrows, have been found dead at the site, some with singed, burned or melted feathers. State and federal regulators are engaging a two-year impact study on the site, but the concern is great enough that the US Fish and Wildlife Service have voiced significant hesitations about BrightSource’s second proposed California solar thermal project.

Finally, there are cultural barriers to these projects as Native American tribes have suggested that the massive towers (as tall as 750 feet) are visually disturbing.

At the end of the day, there’s no arguing the Ivanpah is a historic landmark in regard to what it has accomplished. As a high profile source of 400 megawatts of renewable energy, it's no doubt raising and answering questions about large-scale solar thermal capabilities and impacts.

Is it a Pyhrric victory? Do you think it should have been built in the first place?


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