EDITORIAL: Solar flame-out at Ivanpah

There’s been no shortage of problems at the monstrous Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System since the plant went online in early 2014. For starters, the $2.2 billion price tag included a hefty $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees. Then, as we noted in April 2014, the intense heat coming off the plant’s 170,000 heliostat mirrors was literally incinerating thousands of birds and insects.

In October 2015, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported that the massive mirror array off Interstate 15, just south of the Nevada state line, uses so much natural gas to function that it has to be regulated under California’s cap-and-trade boondoggle. Now, we’re learning the plant is falling so far short of energy production expectations that the California Public Utilities Commission had to consider shutting it down.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Cassandra Sweet earlier this month, the Ivanpah plant, owned by BrightSource Energy, isn’t producing the power it is contractually required to deliver to Pacific Gas and Electric. Ms. Sweet noted that in 2014, the portion of the Ivanpah plant that supplies PG&E generated just 45 percent of the electricity the state commission expected under the power contracts and was still at only 68 percent — a grade of D by any measure — in 2015.

Joe Desmond, senior vice president of BrightSource, said the plant wasn’t required to meet the full amount, under terms of the contract — and of course, those terms are confidential. What exactly is the point of a contract if the terms of said contract are merely a suggestion, and a secret one at that?

The plant’s shortcomings led to a March 17 meeting of state regulators, and wouldn’t you know it, St. Patrick’s Day proved lucky for BrightSource. In her follow-up, Ms. Sweet reported that the CPUC threw a lifeline to the plant’s owners, approving forbearance agreements that allow up to a year to work out the problems.

Ms. Sweet added that the approval came without discussion. After all, what’s there to discuss here? We’re only talking about $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees — in other words, taxpayer money fully at risk at an underproducing, overhyped green energy project. Can you say “Solyndra”? Further, as The Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch noted, the CPUC wouldn’t disclose how much the arrangement will cost ratepayers.

The answer: plenty. Ms. Sweet reported that power from the two Ivanpah units that serve PG&E collected about $200 a megawatt hour on average during summer months last year. That’s nearly six times greater than the $35 per-megawatt-hour rate for natural gas in California’s wholesale market in 2015. Even Ivanpah’s $135 nonsummer average dwarfs the cost of natural gas.

Between costs, lack of productivity and fried feathered friends, the Ivanpah plant and others like it have proven to be neither eco-friendly nor economically friendly. The private sector — and private money — should lead the way on energy with processes such as fracking that are continually becoming safer and more cost-efficient for consumers. Government shouldn’t be in the business of massively subsidizing green energy, and regulators shouldn’t exist to prop up a failing industry either.

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