A mirror a minute: the Ivanpah solar farm kicks into high gear

About 45 minutes south of Las Vegas on Interstate 15 — past miles of sprawling desert, a few aging casinos, and the Nevada, California border — sits an engineering and technology marvel that is months from offering a very real solution to helping fight climate change. This is Ivanpah, one of the largest solar thermal farms in the world, which when switched on in 2013, will use 170,000 mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto three massive towers to produce solar electricity.

A crane installing a mirror into place at Ivanpah

On a visit on Monday, BrightSource — the solar tech company behind the plant — construction giant Bechtel, and the largest owner of the project, NRG Energy, welcomed a group of reporters onto the site to check out just how close Ivanpah is to producing electricity. The solar team says the construction on the entire 3,600 acre site is about half way complete, and the site has now moved into a peak construction phase with 2,100 workers installing about one mirror a minute onto poles in the desert ground.

That’s 3,000 mirrors — called heliostats — installed per week for the past three weeks, says Jim Ivany, President of Renewables for Bechtel. There’s already 40,000 of the planned 55,000 mirrors installed around the first tower of Ivanpah — called Ivanpah 1 — which will sell its power to utility PG&E. Ivanpah 3 will also sell power to PG&E, while Ivanpah 2 will supply Southern California Edison.

Our group had the lucky opportunity of getting to ride up to the ninth floor of the 450 foot tower 1, and being able to step out onto the viewing platform, which was basically just a sturdy metal grating. Solar fans that fear heights need not apply. From the skies the heliostats look like metallic chiclets and the workers like Doozers walking amongst them. Miles of desert, and beyond that mountains, stretch out around the mirror fields.

NRG CEO David Crane at the top of tower 1

All three of the 450-foot towers at Ivanpah are now built, and two out of the three towers already house the massive boilers at their tops that will be the point where all of the sunlight from the heliostats is focused. These boilers will shine bright — like light bulbs — when turned on, and the intense heat from the sun’s rays will turn water into steam, that will in turn run turbines and create electricity.

Just a year ago

The site is almost unrecognizable from the first time I visited it, about a year ago. Back then only part of the first tower was built and there were no mirrors installed across the fields. The first tower took many months to resurrect, and the two other ones followed just weeks behind, due to the learning curve of finishing the first one. Before construction, the site suffered from delays for years due to regulations and environmental concerns from the desert tortoises.

But now that construction is in full force, it’s like they’re making up for lost time. Bechtel’s Ivany says at one point he was worried at the pace of such break neck construction, as he was concerned that transporting tens of thousands of mirrors across dusty roads throughout the site would be difficult to do efficiently. But the team eventually figured it out, says Ivany.

The construction effort is unusual to say the least. The site has boasted three heavy lift cranes that can lift 90 tons of materials. Ivany says there’s only 22 of these cranes in existence in the world.

Sea of heliostats at Ivanpah 1

The assembly buildings — which look like tan circus tents rising up in the desert — have been built to deliver around 300 assembled mirrors per 10-hour shift. The team consulted with some auto execs in Detroit to get the assembly line process down to the efficiency of a large automated auto plant. When all of the mirrors are assembled and installed, the assembly buildings are designed to be packed up and removed from the site.

One of the most important things to remember is that six months ago the workers that are building the towers, and installing and assembling the mirrors didn’t have all that much experience constructing a solar thermal farm of this kind. No one has, really. BrightSource built a much smaller scale site in Coalinga that provided solar-generated steam to Chevron for enhanced oil recovery and BrightSource also built another plant in Israel. But this one has newer, next-gen technology.

The tower and boiler at Ivanpah 1

Ivanpah is the first of its kind at this scale, and represents a new wave of solar power that is being built in the California deserts. The entire site will deliver 392 MW of power, which is on par with a medium sized fossil fuel power plant. Energy storage and natural gas turbine technology will help the solar farm deliver closer to baseload power (meaning it could run more like a 24/7 coal plant) with greater power reliability than a solar panel farm.

To be sure, Ivanpah wasn’t cheap. It’s costing billions of dollars to build, and includes a big chunk of the funds coming via a loan guarantee from the U.S. government. NRG Energy CEO David Crane, in his closing remarks after the day long tour, made sure to thank the support of the federal government.

If you don’t believe that the U.S. needs to de-carbonize its electricity supply, then Ivanpah might seem like an extravagance. But California certainly believes in investing in carbon-free energy, and thanks to its renewable portfolio standard has encouraged PG&E and SCE to buy the power from the site.

Here’s two dozen photos of my latest visit to Ivanpah: