IVANPAH DRY LAKE, Calif. -- Turn a power plant boiler inside out. Stick it on top of a 450-foot tower, and point 50,000 pairs of mirrors at it.
In a matter of months, that setup -- under construction here in the Mojave Desert -- will begin sending electricity to consumers in Southern California when the first phase of the world's largest concentrating solar plant begins operating.
By the end of next year, another 120,000-plus mirror pairs are expected to be online, tracking the sun's movements to power two additional towers as the 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station enters full operation.
The ambitious installation -- a collaboration among BrightSource Energy Inc., NRG Energy Inc. and Google Inc. -- has been years in the making, navigating federal permitting requirements and assuaging concerns from local environment groups. But the end result, which will be online next year, is seen by both industry and environmentalists as a model for future development, as the Obama administration begins to implement a wide-ranging plan to site additional utility-scale solar projects in Western deserts.
During a tour earlier this month, the site was buzzing with activity as workers continued installing the mirror arrays -- known as "heliostats," each of which is two billboard-sized mirrors attached to a single pillar. The heliostats are being added at a pace of about one per minute, and workers are also completing the three power towers, cooling systems and other components. Construction hit its peak this month with about 2,100 workers on site, generally operating on 10-hour shifts, four days per week.
Computer-programmed motors will allow the heliostats to track the movement of the sun, focusing its rays on a central boiler comprising 13,000 feet of tubing atop the 450-foot tower. The setup is similar to a boiler at a traditional fossil fuel plant -- water within the tubes will turn into steam used to spin a turbine -- but the apparatus is turned "inside out," said Jim Ivany, president of the renewable power business line for Bechtel, which is constructing the plant.
"On a fossil fuel boiler all those tubes are on the inside because the fire's on the inside," Ivany said during a media tour of the facility.
Development of the Ivanpah project came before the Interior Department established its recently finalized six-state plan for solar development, creating some extra headaches for companies, conservationists and regulators as all navigated a relatively uncharted path toward large-scale solar energy. But the end result seems to have largely satisfied most stakeholders and provided some lessons to guide future developments that could encounter concerns ranging from tortoise protection to transmission access.
The project also benefited from a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy and expects to recoup about 30 percent of its overall costs from a green power grant program established in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act known as the Section 1603 program. The overall price tag for Ivanpah is around $2.2 billion.
"This project never would have happened without the federal government's support," said David Crane, NRG's CEO, during an interview on the project site earlier this month. "There's just no private-sector financing for a cutting-edge technology project. There are other solar thermal projects out there, but none of this magnitude, and this would be considered first of a kind in the financing world."
NRG wants to evaluate how well Ivanpah performs before deciding how much additional investment to throw behind utility-scale solar development, Crane said. The company invested about $300 million in Ivanpah.
The installation is expected to produce "first steam" in November, to ensure the boiler operates as expected, and the first tower should be fully operational by early next year, with towers two and three to follow in subsequent months, Crane said.
The project site was hopping during last week's tour. In addition to completing the towers and installing the heliostats, workers were busy in two modular buildings assembling the heliostats. The mirror arrays are assembled on the project site to minimize the potential for damage during transport, and workers can churn out about 500 heliostats per day.
Assembling the mirrors was a unique task for all of the union workers on site, such that even veteran workers were jokingly dubbed "first-year apprentice heliostat assemblymen," said Jason Schimmels, a heliostat assembly superintendent with Bechtel.
"We've got guys who have been in the trade for 30 years -- so you call them an apprentice, they're like, 'That's not funny,'" Schimmels said. "But it's true. Nobody in here six months ago knew anything about assembling heliostats."
Now, he said, it takes about six minutes to assemble a single heliostat -- half the time it took when the project started.
Mitigating environmental impact
Planning for the project dates back to at least 2007, when BrightSource Energy applied for state permits for the plant, which was originally slated to comprise four power towers -- although its footprint subsequently shrank in response to environmental concerns raised during federal permit reviews. The Bureau of Land Management put Ivanpah on a "fast track" for its review in 2009, and the project won approval about a year later. Developers broke ground on construction in October 2010.
Environmental groups initially objected to the project because of its potential effects on the threatened desert tortoise, which lives in the same piece of desert where Ivanpah is being constructed along the California-Nevada border.
In addition to shrinking the project's footprint, BrightSource moved tortoises off-site and erected fences around the plant to prevent tortoises from getting in. Workers on site walk around their vehicles before driving to make sure none of the animals decided to take a nap under a wheel, where they could be crushed. The company also established a tortoise nursery, where 53 hatchlings have recently been born.
Many of the problems conservationists saw during development of the Ivanpah project cropped up because it was one of the first large-scale facilities to move through the Interior's permitting process -- it sits on nearly 3,500 acres of public land, just west of the Nevada border, requiring an environmental impact statement review before BLM could authorize construction.
Earlier this year, Interior, working with other agencies, finalized a "programmatic" EIS setting aside 17 zones where officials hope to guide future development, prioritizing areas with few wildlife conflicts and access to transmission.
"When the [Ivanpah] site was selected by the developers, they didn't have the benefit of the kind of information that we hope these next generation projects are going to have," said Chase Huntley, a clean energy specialist with the Wilderness Society. "And as such, you learned a lot through the project siting and environmental review process, have still learned a lot through the construction process about what's out there."
Huntley led a flyover of the Ivanpah site, which sits near two other solar projects all clustered near existing transmission infrastructure. The landscape is dotted by galleta grass, Joshua trees and other shrubbery, and from the air, miles of dry washes and lakes that are vital to control rain when it comes to the desert become clear.
Huntley says the new Interior plan will allow for more regionwide approaches to mitigate the impacts of industrial solar development across entire landscapes, rather than just focusing on discrete activities for a particular project site.
"Because for all the effort that's occurring to mitigate project impacts on-site, the impacts are big, and there's no walking away from what it's going to mean to be putting those facilities out there," he said.
The Wilderness Society and other conservation groups also are backing legislation known as the "Public Lands and Renewable Energy Development Act," which apportions rental and royalty payments from renewable energy development among state and local governments, Interior and conservation funds.
Several versions of the bill were introduced in the House and Senate, with bipartisan co-sponsors including Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.). None of the bills -- H.R. 5991, H.R. 6154 and S. 1775 -- has emerged from committee, according to the Congressional Record.
Revenues from renewable development currently go to the Treasury with no guidance on how they should be spent, Huntley said, but the new Interior plan, in conjunction with the new legislation, would give local stakeholders a larger role in renewable development and would help to emphasize the benefits of such activities, rather than just their impact on the environment.
"And that's where so much of the conversation is focused now -- the impact, the impact," he said. "And I think there's a lot to be said for the work the Interior Department has done to bring us up out of that frame and into a more forward-looking framework like what's in the PEIS, begin to look at balance."