solar energy

Stick This in Your Fossil Fuel Pipe and Smoke It!

by Robert Hunziker

California leads the way to a fossil fuel-less world.

solar energyPRESS RELEASE:  NIPTON, Calif. –Sept. 24, 2013- “Today it was announced that the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System produced its first output of energy when unit 1 station was synchronized to the power grid for the first time (Brightsource Energy, Inc.)”

Voilà! Thinking ‘outside of the box’ turns energetic as the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), owned by NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource Energy, brightens up more than 140,000 homes in California, and momentously, shows the world how to make dry, barren desert “work for humanity.”

ISEGS is located at Ivanpah Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, California on a plot of barren federal land of approximately 3.500 acres and will produce 377 MW of electricity. The project took three years to complete. Today, it is effectively starting to power residential homes while reducing California CO2 emissions by more than 400,000 tons/year.

This single project will nearly double the amount of solar thermal energy produced in the United States. As such, President Obama should be crowned the Sun King, as his energy department made it possible.

How it Works – Concentrating Solar Power (CSP)

Here’s how this mini-miracle works: ISEGS produces electricity the same way that most of the world does, by creating high-temperature steam to turn a conventional turbine, which is the old-fashioned way to make electricity, dating back 200 years. Be that as it may, here’s the twist, instead of burning fossil fuels to create steam, ISEGS uses the cleanest and the most infinite source of energy in the galaxy, the sun.

ISEGS’s power-tower solar thermal system is an innovative solar field design, utilizing 170,000 software-controlled mirrors (each measuring 70 sq. ft.) to track the sun in three dimensions and reflect the sunlight to boilers, achieving 1,000 degrees, atop three 459-foot tall towers. In turn, the concentrated sunlight strikes the boilers’ tubes, heats water, and voilà, superheated steam comes out the other end, piped from the boiler to a standard turbine where electricity is created. From there, electricity transmission lines carry the power to homes and businesses.

This sophisticated process would be a perfect fit for a scene in a Star Wars movie, but the filmmakers would likely ‘beam’ the electricity to homes and businesses, much as the current configuration beams concentrated sunlight to the tower to create steam to make electricity.

ISEGS’s revolutionary process may be the closest that the ‘old-timers’ of power-generating systems ever get to a magical fingertouch-to-fingertouch embedded relationship with the messiah of energy, clean, infinite, bright sunlight. And, which brings to mind, a la California, one should wear sunglasses when visiting the power plant site. This entire affair has a Hollywood dimension to it, exciting, fun, and a powerhouse to see and explore, serving as one more California monument for the state’s ten million-plus international visitors, and if there are plans to take-in Disneyland, why not drive out to the desert to see the remarkable solar electric generating plant with its 170,000 heliostat mirrors evenly spread out on the desert floor. It is remarkable, and tourists love the remarkable!

This is free energy from the sun, which is wonderful, but what about cloudy days? First, deserts do not have many overcast days. Nevertheless, consider this: Germany leads the world in residential solar power and does not have a sunny climate. Furthermore, solar panels on rooftops in cool, foggy San Francisco produce only 1% less electricity than comparables in nearby sunny/hot Sacramento. However, ISEGS’ technology is several cuts above these conventional solar rooftop devices.

And, as a matter of fact, San Francisco, which is already one of the country’s leading cities for solar power, will be the recipient of ISEGS’s electricity output, delivered by Pacific Gas & Electric and/or Southern California Edison.

With this, the state of California, once again, proves its mettle by showing the world how to thrive in a CO2-saturated world that is slowly melting away. As for another example of California’s leadership, the state’s landmark 2006 Assembly Bill 32: Global Warming Solutions Act calls for the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, herewith California takes a nationwide leadership role on this most important climate change issue.

From this point forward, ‘enough’ with the trash talk that comes out of the Midwest about California falling off the end of the earth because of the Big One!

California just fired up the biggest solar thermal power plant in the world. How’s that for the big one?

And, as far as that goes, when it comes to the Midwest and the East, especially considering that North Dakota now provides 10% of the nation’s oil, they’re ground zero for hydraulic fracking, which… you guessed it… causes earthquakes. Ha!

Growing Desertification Creates a Ripe Challenge for Concentrating Solar Power

Too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the world has accelerated desertification of the world’s arable land. According to the World Meteorological Organization, carbon dioxide-induced climate change and desertification remain inextricably linked because of feedbacks between land degradation and precipitation.

In China 1,000 square miles of arable land is turning to desertification every year, which is comparable to lopping off a Rhode Island landmass from the U.S. every year. As well, according to China’s State Forestry Administration, 25% of the country suffers from desertification. The country has had four years of droughts and water shortages affecting the lives of 400 million people, according to Li Xia, Drought in China Turns Vast Tracts of Land to Desert, Epoch Times, March 19, 2013. In fact, the desertification problem in China is the most severe in the world.

Elsewhere, regions of Africa are experiencing the same problem to an extreme degree. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report claims that 20% of arid regions have already become desert.

Ironically, fossil fuel’s CO2 emissions, which directly contribute to desertification, echo a small eureka because of prospective areas for concentrating solar power. As a result, putting desert lands to good use.

A Great Leap Forward but no Panacea

At any given time, the Earth receives from the sun 6,000 times worldwide energy usage requirements, and it is free!

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System cost $2.2 billion with the U.S. Department of Energy providing a loan of $1.375 billion, which loan guarantee came under fierce attack from House Republicans. On an apples-for-apples basis, its cost of $5,561 per KW falls somewhere between the construction costs for coal and nuclear plants; this is according to Synapse Energy Economics.

On an operational basis, ISEGS is a mini-hybrid because it will not run during the night, during cloudy days, and on cold winter mornings using on-site natural gas burners to heat up the system to produce electricity. Therefore, and considering electricity demand is a 24/7 operation, ISEGS will share power generation on a split basis with off-site third-party conventional natural gas or coal-fired plants. In other words, ISEGS systems are not a panacea, but similar systems spread across the world would go a long, long, long way towards reducing the carbon footprint of humankind.

It is hopeful that ISEGS look alikes will spread around the world to help reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere to under 350ppm, which is the level required to help stabilize the world’s changing climate, versus current readings of 400ppm.

But, firstly and obviously, it is important that ISEGS prove itself as a functioning technological marvel. Thereafter, hopefully, this technology quickly spreads around the world. Here’s why quickly is so important. Already, the current rate of CO2 spewing into the atmosphere is at all-time highs and destined to increase because, according to the World Resources Institute: Across the globe 1,200 new coal-fired plants are now on the drawing boards with India and China accounting for 75% of new capacity. And, if only 25% of these are built, it will be equivalent to doubling coal capacity of the U.S., which may be enough, nobody knows for sure, to push the climate beyond a tipping point to a more serious global warming situation. But, what if all of the plans for coal-fired plants switch to concentrating solar power plants, like ISEGS?

At the end of the day, it is probably an understatement to say that nobody wants a super heated planet with water lapping up on the doorstep of the New York Stock Exchange. So, maybe, hopefully, the world’s elite moneyed interests take an interest in concentrated solar power (CSP) and open their pocketbooks, which are stuffed full of ultra-big dollar bills, to fund more, and more, exciting, remarkable, cutting-edge, life-saving, avant-garde CSP pioneer projects for a worldwide green revolution. That way they do not have to worry about building dykes around NYC, which would cost as much as it will to build CSP plants.

Postscript: “In the Year of Darkness, 2029, the rulers of this planet devised the ultimate plan. They would reshape the Future by changing the Past,” (The Terminator, Orion Pictures, Oct. 26, 1984.) Similarly, CSP presents the world an opportunity to reshape the future by changing the way turbines turn for the first time in 200 years. Apropos, Gov. Arnold (I’ll be back!) Schwarzenegger applauded and spoke at the Ivanpah solar project construction start date, on October 27, 2010, almost 26 years to-the-day of the opening of his film classic, The Terminator.

Robert Hunziker View more

Robert Hunziker
Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: