An increasingly rare type of solar farm goes online in California

When the huge solar farm just outside of Las Vegas called Ivanpah opened up in early 2014, many lamented that this type of solar plant, called solar thermal, could soon become a dinosaur. Late last week another of these large solar thermal farms was officially turned on, and it truly could be one of the last of this size built in the U.S., thanks to a one-two punch of changing incentives and economics.

Large utility-scale solar panel farms use rows and rows of solar panels to directly convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Solar thermal farms, on the other hand, uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat liquid that produces steam and makes electricity from a turbine. These sites are essentially using the heat of the sun to produce electricity.

Abengoa's solar thermal farm Mojave Solar

Abengoa’s solar thermal farm Mojave Solar

Spanish power giant Abengoa celebrated the opening last Friday of a huge 280 MW solar thermal farm called Mojave Solar, built just outside of Barstow, California. The project can provide enough solar power for 90,000 homes in California, and was built across 2 square miles.

Abengoa said the site will generate $169 million in tax revenue over 25 years, provided a peak of 2,200 construction jobs, and now employs about 70 people. California utility PG&E is buying the power from Mojave Solar, and the facility will help PG&E meet California’s state mandate to generate a third of its electricity from clean power by 2020.

Abengoa finished another 280 MW solar thermal farm in Gila Bend, Arizona at the end of 2013. Years ago, power companies were as bullish on solar thermal farms as they were on solar panel farms, which are increasingly being constructed in the deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona.

The Topaz solar farm.

The Topaz solar farm, built by MidAmerican, outside of San Luis Obispo

But a few years ago the price of solar panels began to drop dramatically, from an average installation cost of $5.79 per watt in 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, to $2.71 per watt in the third quarter of 2014 (this is the average cost blended across all types of installations). Utility-scale solar panel installations can be as low as $1.68 per watt according to GTM Research.

As a result, some power companies that had solar thermal farms planned converted these sites over to solar panel facilities. Other companies that had developed businesses off of developing solar thermal sites cancelled projects in the U.S. that were no longer deemed economical and focused internationally.

A look at the heliostats and 2 of the 3 towers of Ivanpah. Taken from the 6th floor of the Unit 1 tower.

A look at the heliostats and 2 of the 3 towers of Ivanpah. Taken from the 6th floor of the Unit 1 tower.

But ultra cheap solar panels are only part of the headwinds facing large utility-scale solar thermal farms in the U.S. There’s also a couple of important incentives that have been changed as well.

First off, the federal investment tax credit (ITC), which delivers a 30 percent tax credit to solar project developers, is planned to be cut to 10 percent by the end of 2016. While it could be extended, the uncertainty is threatening the construction of utility scale solar farms, using both solar thermal and solar panels. The New York Times noted in an article this weekend that there are no future large solar thermal projects planned in the U.S.

Then there’s the fact that federal incentives in the form of loan guarantees are also no longer widely available for solar thermal plants. When Ivanpah was built, it used a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. government to construct its 347,000 mirrors and three huge 450-foot towers. Likewise, Abengoa’s Mojave Solar used a $1.2 billion loan guarantee to finance construction. These types of large loans are no longer regularly coming out of the Department of Energy.

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz cutting the ribbon at solar farm Ivanpah, just outside of Las Vegas

NRG Energy CEO David Crane and Energy Secretary Ernie Monitz cutting the ribbon at solar farm Ivanpah, just outside of Las Vegas

While large solar panel farms are still low cost enough that they could continue to be constructed, solar thermal farms the size of Ivanpah (392 MW, 5 square miles), Mojave Solar (280 MW, 2 square miles), and Solana (280 MW, 3 square miles) are far less likely to get built in the future. (Though, solar panel projects will also be impacted by the reduction of the ITC.)

Utilities calculate how much clean power they need (most likely to meet a state mandate) and then compare it to the cost of building a new natural gas plant, a wind farm or either type of solar farm. If natural gas plants, or other types of clean power, are cheaper than solar thermal facilities, then it’s an easy decision.

But large solar thermal farms could still find life outside of the U.S. They can uniquely store thermal energy at night, providing electricity far longer than solar panel farms without energy storage can.

BrightSource, which is the startup behind the Ivanpah site, recently announced a joint venture with China’s Shanghai Electric Group to build utility-scale solar thermal plants in China. Their first proposed project is to build two 135 MW solar thermal projects in the Qinghai province of China.

Turn the light up or down to shift thinking styles

Research by Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth shows that we can change our cognitive performance in very interesting ways. Want to be creative? Turn the light down:

“Darkness increases freedom from constraints, which in turn promotes creativity,” report  Anna Steidle of the University of Stuttgart and Lioba Werth of the University of Hohenheim. A dimly lit environment, they explain in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “elicits a feeling of freedom, self-determination, and reduced inhibition,” all of which encourage innovative thinking.

There are some additional wrinkles to the research. One is that the light being dimmed needs to be one casting light downward, and not upward to the ceiling, which is too diffused to have an effect. And a second, fantastic finding: just thinking about darkness — like recalling what it feels like to be in a dark space, or relating that feeling to someone — is enough to increase people’s creativity.

In earlier research, the authors have also demonstrated the complementary effect: tuning the lights up leads to a more logical sort of reasoning (in psychological terms, an executive form of cognition). As the authors explained,

Different types of cognitive tasks call for different thinking styles: Logical reasoning
requires applying well-learned structures – typical for executive thinking, whereas creating something new requires making unusual connections and an expansion of conceptual attention – typical for legislative thinking [creative thinking].

Another argument for more programmable environments in our workplaces, or workplaces with a palette of light options: a dark library for introspective creative thought, a darkened cafe for creative coworking, a bright conference room for group decision-making, and so on.

Maybe this explains why my office is generally so dark, with the shades drawn down?

Infographic: the periodic table of smartphones

Apple’s iPhone and other smartphones are full of rare earth minerals China is one of the biggest producers (and consumers) of these rare earth minerals, which are becoming such hot commodities that entrepreneurs and investors are thinking about mining the moon for them.

Apple chooses design over recyclability. Will anyone notice?

Last month Apple asked that EPEAT, the standards group responsible for rating the recyclability of electronics products, drop 39 of its computers and monitors from its rankings. The company is being honest about prioritizing design over recyclability. But will mainstream consumers care?

5 ways to harness info tech to fight climate change

This is Jonathan Koomey’s fourth essay in a series of four this week that highlights, and excerpts from, his upcoming book, “Cold Cash, Cool Climate,” which discusses how entrepreneurs and investors can profit from tackling climate change, one of this century’s greatest challenges.

LanzaTech raises $56M, targets Asia with biofuel tech

Asia, with its rapidly growing number of car owners and large pollution problems, could very well be the biggest market for biofuels and green chemicals one day. LanzaTech, which announced Monday it has raised $55.8 million, is certainly finding more willing customers and partners Asia.

Hacking solutions to the world’s resource problem

This weekend in New York City, dozens of developers gathered for the second Cleanweb Hackathon, where programmers spent the weekend building mobile and web apps around new ways to manage energy. The event is the latest sign the ecosystem around clean technology is changing.

Another changing of the guard for solar startup Nanosolar

Nanosolar, which has struggled for years to fulfill its promise as the next major thin-film solar manufacturer, announced Thursday it has a new CEO. Eugenia Corrales, who has been the startup’s head of engineering and operations, is taking over the chief executive post effective immediately.