We Could Have This Amazing Solar Power Station In Australia

This is the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, on the border of Nevada and California in the southern United States. With three of these massive solar thermal towers and 4000 acres filled with 173,500 sunlight-reflecting heliostat mirrors, it generates four times as much power as the largest solar plant in the southern hemisphere, and is the largest solar thermal power station in the world. It's actually beautiful, and we could have it.

Driving south down the I-15 interstate, you can spot the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System from the window of your car; it's pretty distinctive, with those massive solar thermal boiler towers shining brightly and the large fields of heliostats looking like a reflective blue sea in the distance. It looks vaguely alien, like something out of a movie or a Command & Conquer video game.

One of the solar towers at the Ivanpah plant was actually the inspiration for HELIOS One in Fallout: New Vegas — a game that surprisingly accurately modeled a fair amount of the Nevada-California border area, including towns like Goodsprings and the Hoover Dam. You can tell why the game's designers thought to include it — it looks like the future, more than a coal station's smokestacks or a nuclear plant's steam turbine towers.

The concept of a solar thermal power station is actually pretty simple; a large field of motorised, computer-controlled heliostats reflect sunlight against a receiver, a single raised point in the centre of the solar reflection field that houses a steam turbine-generator. Walk up to the edge of the restricted area, and you can actually hear the heliostats' motors at work every couple of seconds, constantly adjusting a mirror or two to account for the movement of the sun in the sky, to accurately reflect that precious sunlight against the side of the boiler.

The project in Ivanpah is a joint venture between a range of companies, like NRG Energy (US$300 million) and Google (US$168 million), with the total US$2.2 billion cost underwritten by a US$1.6 billion guarantee from the United States government. It was actually originally planned to be 10 per cent larger, until the discovery that the land slated to be used was a valuable habitat for the desert tortoise. Being a solar plant, too, Ivanpah is heavily reliant on good weather; it produced only half its expected output in Q3 2014, but at the same time a year later had improved by 170 per cent.

At seven times the cost of Australia's largest power plant, Ivanpah Solar Power Facility has four times the capacity but takes up seven times the space — not an efficient set of numbers. In a country where we have boundless plains to fill with solar reflecting mirrors, though, land usage is not an issue, and the California facility's central solar thermal towers are much easier to repair and upgrade than the distributed photovoltaic (PV) cells more commonly used in Australia — our country only has two significant solar thermal projects, and dozens of PV installations.

The cost of solar power in Australia is dropping, both on the installation scale and on individual owners' rooftops — 2015 was an exceptionally good year for the technology — and the complementary technology of small- and medium-scale battery energy storage, in products like the Tesla Powerwall, is quickly advancing. Large-scale installations are outpacing rooftop installations, too.

And that's why we might one day have a solar power station in Australia that equals the size and scale of the Ivanpah plant in California. Our current largest station, the Nyngan Solar Plant in central New South Wales, has 102MW of capacity and produced enough power last year to supply 33,000 New South Wales homes while also saving enough greenhouse emissions to be equivalent to taking 53,000 cars off roads. An Ivanpah-esque plant would be significantly more powerful.

With around 4,000MW of capacity currently installed around Australia, this one plant would make up a massive 10 per cent of our total countrywide solar infrastructure. That amount, though, only contributes around 1 per cent of the country's electrical energy usage; the vast majority still comes from coal and gas. Australia's largest power station, Eraring at Lake Macquarie in NSW, has a combined capacity of 2880MW across four coal-fired generators. We're a long way off solar power contributing these kind of numbers to our electricity grid.

But it's possible. Investment in solar power in Australia grew tenfold between 2009 and 2011, and we're a country with lots of sun, lots of room, and lots of opportunities for investment in clean energy thanks to our nascent renewable energy target — 50 per cent of all power generation by 2030 being clean and green. Until then, you'll just have to feast your eyes on these pictures and imagine the future.


    Aaah command and conquer. Just picked up all 17 games for 20 bucks.. To keep the comment related Australia's one of the sunnier continents, it only makes sense to capitalise.

    Always makes me laugh when a facility or road that would benefit thousands of people is stopped due to one animal/insect and there habitat. Reducing this facility by 10 percent because of a tortoise, classic.

      but that is why we have so many extinctions because we are NOT thinking about other species on this planet. We have caused an awful lot of extinct animals in our time on the planet due to progress and benefitting thousands of people.
      why won't anyone think of the animals?!

        Unfortunately with mankind, animals mostly come second. If we truly want to save the animals, mankind must die.

        Extinctions of a species also sometimes have a flow on effect even for us, it might be a particular insect that pollinates a particular plant which attracts a particular bird, which eats and keeps the population of another insect populaton in check, and before you know it we have plague of insects eating our crops.

    I remember watching the build process on National Geographic, the main concern wildlife experts had about a solar farm this large was that it could kill birds flying above it due to the amount of heat that gets reflected by the mirrors.

    Last edited 14/01/16 1:52 pm

    2.2 billion dollars for a plant that outputs less than your typical coal/gas power plant. Plus it uses 525 million cubic feet of natural gas each year to kick start the boilers each morning. Like solar power itself the plant promised much but has failed to deliver.

      If you only factor in total power output, then sure. But that's really missing the whole point of a solar plant, isn't it? Otherwise, we may as well just throw nuclear everywhere if we're conveniently ignoring that thing called the environment.

      On the face of it, it doesn't seem that good when you put it like that.

      But if you look up some numbers (eg: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/pdf/updated_capcost.pdf ) you find it's not that bad.

      To build a new pulverized coal fired plant with carbon capture sequestration (ie, "clean coal plant" ) of the same capacity (392 MW) would cost 1.86 billion up front, and cost more to generate each kW of electricity (see O&M costs per kW in the data I linked above). Not to mention it still isn't anywhere near as clean as the solar thermal plant.

      We have a lot of spare land area, we have effectively infinite sunlight.. we don't have infinite air or fossil fuel.

      Easy choice for me.

      We couldhave had this even moreamazing 1 kilometre high solar tower, 200MW of gleaming solar future in a corner of NSW - but nobody here was game to build it, so the USA will get it instead.

      Compared to 62 Billion for the redundant and troublesome F-22 fighter project it is a steal. Not to mention money spent on F-35 (Including Australian money) .

      For this kind of money we do get something useful with lasting ROI. Night time power supply guaranteed with high temp phase change storage... Just need another 500 of the same (USA), (there we may get issues with land use and GREEN Agendas).

      This technology does NOT get significantly cheaper with scale (hence not strictly scalable) increased output is by increasing number of total units of (optimal size).

      Look on the BRIGHT side, no fuel costs, add in robotic maintenance of heliostats.. It's all good.

      Last edited 16/01/16 4:52 pm

    "At seven times the cost of Australia’s largest power plant, Ivanpah Solar Power Facility has four times the capacity"

    And that is the bottom line once you take all the feelgood waffle out. Double the cost of electricity and no power at night without gas backup. Cleaning up the grid in Australia is an engineering challenge constrained by politics. With free reign we would have no coal in 10 years - instead have wind and solar with nuclear baseload.

      Spain powered a suburb with a solar plant like this for 24 hrs straight, using thermal storage.
      Its apparently quite efficient, and an area of great research.

        SA ran off wind for a day too which is a nice headline but little more when you talk intermittent generators such as wind and solar.

        There are security issues with molten salt storage as they typically use nitrates which can be made into explosives very easily. This can be as low tech as putting a stick into the molten salt.

        There is no clear winner which is why we need a mix of generator types chosen with the advantages and disadvantages (not emotion) taken into account.

    How about wave power? No requirement for any land, can provide plenty of electricity, and already in Australia, because it was invented here and is being exported around the world, including to the US. They need us more than we need them.

      But we don't pay our scientists and engineers, so our people need foreign money more than our experts need us.

      Time and again Australia has done amazing things with technology, only for the government to go "can't be stuffed". :-(

    Not once was their mention of the Australian CSIRO's impressive solar thermal project. From my understanding the CSIRO researchers are leaders in developing super critical steam from concentrated solar thermal energy. To top it off they store the energy in molten salt to keep the turbines running without sun.

    This is an Australian website no? Some pretty average journalism.

    Last edited 15/01/16 2:02 pm

      In spite of lack of federal government support Australia does lead the world in solar power, wave power and robotics! Unfortunately our governments, businesses and news media have never been good at supporting Australian science and technology.

    We know the government arent going to pay up for one of these so how about we start a kickstarter campain :)

    Just imagine how much Nuclear power could be produced on the same size site. The only way forward is Nuclear but people want to dick around with all this other technology that just isn't panning out.

      Uranium as a power source has some of the same problems as fossil fuels - it's a limited resource that will eventually run out. A thorium reactor might work better (if anyone was willing to actually build one). Fusion is, as always, about twenty years away.

      Geothermal has some potential for baseload generation, although it also has some issues (like digging the hole.)

      The solar design described in the article also works very poorly when it's cloudy (and covers for this using natural gas) so you really want a site with extremely rare cloud cover. On the other hand, once it's built, that energy is almost free, which is not true of fossil fuel or nuclear, and has very little in the way of waste products, also not true of fossil fuel or nuclear. Consequences of engineering failure are also relatively minor when dealing with solar

      All the different energy generation technologies have their own advantages and disadvantages; whatever path you choose to follow will be a balancing act. Nuclear energy has never been a popular idea in Australia and Fukushima has probably made it effectively impossible, politically speaking.

    They almost built one like this just outside of Mildura about 12 years ago, but federal government funding was pulled and the project disappeared.

    Last edited 16/01/16 4:36 pm

    This article is typical of the hype and spin presented by most renewable energy publicity. Firstly, I must say that I am very pro renewable energy, but I don't want the truth about the problems obscured by half truths and outright lies, as is often the case. If the writer had bothered to read more about Ivanpah the incredible problems and poor performance would have been at least noted. As late as August last year its output was far from the rated and the number of "elements" that had to be replaced far in excess of what was planned. One of the replies also seems to be confused about power versus energy, and this again is so typical of those pushing wind farms. Ivanpah has a rated power of less than 400 MW, perhaps a third of the dirty coal stations in the Hunter, which we must get rid of. But this is only half of the story. Ivanpah is rated at around 30% availability, a far cry from around 80% for a coal-fired power plant. So there is just no comparison between energy from a coal plant and Ivanpah. It is a very expensive plant, but that is not to say it is not the right way to go. I simply want the right perspective placed on these things. My last point is that without industrial grade large capacity energy storage we are pushing the proverbial up hill.

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