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New Concentrating Solar Power Plant

October 21, 2016

The newly installed Crescent Dunes CSP plant near Tonopah, Nevada, is an important improvement over the ill-fated Ivanpah CSP plant.

The Crescent Dunes and Ivanpah Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a heat exchanger at the top of a 600-foot-tall tower during the day to heat a fluid that is used, either directly or indirectly, to produce steam to drive a turbine generator that produces electricity.

  • The 392 MW, Ivanpah CSP plant heats water directly to produce steam.
  • The new, 110 MW, Crescent Dunes CSP plant heats molten salt to a very high temperature. The heated salt is then passed through a heat exchanger to produce steam. Importantly, the salt stores heat for use any time during the day or night.

It’s the ability to store heat that is the most important distinction between the Crescent Dunes and Ivanpah CSP power plants.

Ivanpah produces unreliable, intermittent electricity, while Crescent Dunes is supposed to produce electricity 24/7. In this sense, it provides baseload power, though it will require a period of continuous operation to demonstrate it can actually operate 24/7.

Crescent Dunes has entered into a 25-year power-purchase agreement (PPA) to sell electricity to NV Energy at 13.5 cents per kWh.

One negative regarding Crescent Dunes that has not yet been clarified is whether the plant continues to kill birds that fly through the concentrated sun rays.

Aerial view of Crescent Dunes CSP, courtesy of Solar Reserve LLC

Aerial view of Crescent Dunes CSP, courtesy of Solar Reserve LLC

While Crescent Dunes CSP power plant is a significant improvement in reliability over the Ivanpah plant, it still cannot compete with natural gas or coal-fired power plants.

Presumably, the 13.5 cent per kWh price incorporates the benefits of the 30% tax credit afforded solar investments, and the $737 million government loan guarantee received by Crescent Dunes’ owners.

A levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) calculation for Crescent Dunes will therefore be greater than 13.5 cents, but any LCOE calculation at this time is not meaningful, because there is insufficient information about operation and maintenance costs. No one knows with any certainty, for example, whether the mirrors will be damaged by blowing sand, or how much it will cost to clean the 10,00 house-sized, 1,200-square-foot mirrors.

Building a CSP power plant is far more expensive than building a natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plant.

The Crescent Dunes CSP plant cost just under $1 billion, or $10,000 per KW, which is approximately 10 times the cost of an NGCC plant at $1,100 per KW.

CSP power plants must be built in desert, or otherwise uninhabitable areas, having high levels of insolation, with large amounts of available land area. The 110 MW, Crescent Dunes plant uses 1,600 acres, (2.6 sq. miles) while the 392 MW, Ivanpah plant uses 3,500 acres, (5.8 sq. miles). A 200 MW, NGCC power plant would use around 4 acres.

NGCC power plants are far more economic than CSP plants, and generate electricity at low-cost with a high level of reliability.

NGCC plants generate electricity at around 6 cents per kWh, compared with the Crescent Dunes plants reported long-term contract price of 13.5 cents per kWh.

In summary:

  • NGCC levelized cost of electricity is 6 cents per kWh, while building costs are $1,100 per KW.
  • Crescent Dunes contract price for electricity is 13.5 cents per kWh, while its building cost was $10,000 per KW.

Electricity from a CSP plant costs more than twice as much as does electricity from an NGCC power plant, and a CSP plant costs nearly ten times more to construct than an NGCC power plant.

Under normal conditions, without political hysteria, a CSP plant probably wouldn’t be built in the United States.

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Nothing to Fear, Chapter 7, Concentrating Solar Power, provides an overview of the different types of CSP, though it does not contain information on the newly constructed Crescent Dines CSP plant. This article augments the information in Chapter 7.

Nothing to Fear is available from Amazon and some independent book sellers.

Link to Amazon:

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

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