NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Taxpayers Footing Costs for Solar-Thermal Technology Failures

June 15, 2015

Some costly high-tech solar power projects are not living up to promises their backers made about how much electricity they could generate.

Solar-thermal technology, which uses mirrors to capture the sun's rays, was once heralded as the advance that would overtake old-fashioned solar panel farms. But a series of missteps and technical difficulties threatens to make newfangled solar-thermal technology obsolete.

The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar power project in California's Mojave Desert is supposed to generate more than a million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. But 15 months after starting up, the plant is producing just 40 percent of that, according to data from the U.S. Energy Department.

In contrast, incremental improvements to traditional solar panels have allowed SunPower Corp. to get more electricity than it originally thought it could from its 1,500-acre solar farm. California Valley Solar Ranch was designed to produce 600,000 megawatt-hours a year in 2013 when it started operating, but today it can generate up to 4 percent more.

  • American solar farms generate nearly 16 million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. That satisfies less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity demand, but six times the amount of power that solar-thermal plants currently produce.
  • The Ivanpah plant was delayed several months and had millions of dollars in cost overruns because of wildlife protections for the endangered Desert Tortoise. Once built, U.S. government biologists found the plant's superheated mirrors were killing birds.
  • Bird carnage combined with opposition by Native American tribes to industrial projects on undeveloped land has made California regulators wary of approving more.

Congress could save the taxpayers millions of dollars by ending the wasteful subsidies solar-thermal plants receive, especially considering how little power they supply and the unnecessary harm they cause wildlife. 

Source: Cassandra Sweet, "High-Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver," Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2015. 

 

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