White House Touts Controversial Mojave Desert Solar Plant

Thursday, 13 Feb 2014 12:38 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is traveling to California to celebrate the formal opening of a controversial solar-power project that was helped along by a $1.6 billion Energy Department loan guarantee in 2011.

The Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, located in the Mojave Desert, is the largest solar power project of its kind, reports The National Journal, and department officials say it is a win for the federal loan guarantee program.

The program funding the Ivanpah project is the same that was involved in the failed Solyndra effort, among other green initiatives that flopped in recent years.

The loan guarantee program was resurrected in 2013, under attack by Republicans and other critics who say loan guarantee programs are not the way to entice new technology. At that time, the Energy Department said it was implementing an $8 billion program to help the coal and oil industries develop and adopt innovative energy technologies that would otherwise struggle to get backing from private investors who might find it too risky or expensive.

But critics said the program, originally created in 2005, is a misuse of taxpayer money, pointing to the 2011 failure of the solar module maker Solyndra, which defaulted on a $535 million government loan, prompting a congressional investigation.

Others say such loan guarantee programs are unlikely to stimulate significant numbers of new technologies nor ventures that might become economically viable on a mass scale.

Energy Department officials say that although Solyndra failed, the loan portfolios of at least two dozen other projects have been successful, and Ivanpah is another success story.

The project was made possible by a public-private partnership between the Energy Department and the project's sponsors, according to Peter Davidson, the executive director of the Energy Department's loan programs office.

Ivanpah, coming in at a total of $2.3 billion, is a joint effort of NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource Energy, which say the project will provide enough clean electricity to power 140,000 homes.

However, solar power is already facing a supply issue. Most of the power generated through the new solar plant will be purchased by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, reports The San Francisco Chronicle, but other solar plants may be scrambling to sell their product.

In 2002, The Chronicle reports, California ordered utility companies to buy more renewable power, prompting the construction of large solar power plants like Ivanpah.

However, the state's utility companies won't need more plants after the ones like Ivanpah come online. State law requires utility companies to get one-third of their power from "green" sources by the end of 2020, and Ivanpah and other projects now underway are expected to provide more than enough power.

"The glory days, if you will, are behind us," said Tom Doyle, president of NRG Solar, the majority owner of Ivanpah, told The Chronicle.

Doyle said he sees potential growth in Saudi Arabia, and other states such as Georgia and Nevada are showing interest in solar power.

Some companies are urging officials to raise the state's renewable power requirements to 50 percent, but that may take some time to occur.

Moniz said Ivanpah demonstrates wider White House energy plans.

"We must continue to move toward a cleaner energy economy, and this project shows that building a clean-energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions, and fosters American innovation," said Moniz. He said installations of utility-scale solar projects set new records last year.

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