Ivanpah at full power in California

NRG Energy’s 392MW Ivanpah has been brought fully on line in the California desert, representing a huge milestone for the concentrating solar power (CSP) sector even as contemplates what appears to be a fast-dwindling opportunity in the US.

Based on BrightSource Energy’s power-tower technology, and with Bechtel having acted as EPC contractor, Ivanpah is the largest CSP plant in the world and the first power-tower project in the US.

Ivanpah first flowed electricity onto the grid last autumn, and will sell its output under a duo of PPAs with Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. NRG Yield – the “yieldco” spun off of NRG Energy last year – has the first right to buy Ivanpah should it choose to do so.

Ivanpah is the largest of five CSP projects totaling 1.26GW that were awarded loan guarantees under the US Department of Energy’s 1705 programme, as part of President Barack Obama’s federal stimulus during the height of the financial crisis.

In addition to Ivanpah, which nabbed a $1.6bn loan guarantee, the Department of Energy backed Abengoa’s 280MW Solana project – already on line – and NextEra’s 250MW Genesis, Abengoa’s 280MW Mojave and SolarReserve’s 110MW Crescent Dunes, which are due for completion this year.

US energy secretary Ernest Moniz calls Ivanpah “a shining example of America is becoming a world leader in solar energy”.

However, the 1705 loans programme remains a flashpoint for political controversy in spite of its largely successful track record, due in large part to its support for Solyndra, the bankrupt US thin-film PV manufacturer. The programme has also been accused by some as having favoured developers with powerful lobbying outfits.

Mega-PV – another sector backed by the 1705 programme, including projects like Agua Caliente and California Valley Solar Ranch – has in the subsequent years gained significant commercial traction of its own, with a number of major projects having since been financed privately.

The outlook for CSP, however, looks significantly more challenged in the US, due in part to the crushing price decline seen for PV modules over the past three years.

BrightSource chief executive David Ramm says Ivanpah’s completion marks “a great kickoff to 2014 as BrightSource focuses increasingly on international markets”.

In December BrightSource was dealt a serious setback when California’s energy regulator rejected on a preliminary basis its plan for the 500MW Palen project, saying that parabolic-trough or PV would make a better technology choice than power-tower from an environmental standpoint.

BrightSource had already cancelled and put on its Rio Mesa and Hidden Hills project, respectively, earlier in 2013.

Beyond the US, however, there are a number of promising CSP markets opening up around the world, most obviously in North and South Africa, the Middle East and India