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.