Misaligned mirrors are being blamed for a fire that broke out yesterday at the world's largest solar power plant, leaving the high-tech facility crippled for the time being. It sounds like the plant's workers suffered through a real hellscape, too. The Ivanpah Plant (Image: ISEGS)
A small fire was reported yesterday morning at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) in California, forcing a temporary shutdown of the facility. It's now running at a third of its capacity (a second tower is down due to scheduled maintenance), and it's not immediately clear when the damaged tower will restart. It's also unclear how the incident will impact California's electricity supply.
Putting out the blaze was not easy task, either. Firefighters were forced to climb 90m up a boiler tower to get to the scene. Officials said the fire was located about two-thirds up the tower. Workers at the plant actually managed to subdue the flames by the time firefighters reached the spot, and it was officially extinguished about 20 minutes after it started.
Located on 4000 acres of public land in the Mojave Desert, the sprawling concentrated solar thermal plant is equipped with 173,500 heliostats — each with two mirrors — that focus sunlight on boilers located on top of three 140m towers. The tremendous heat created by the concentrated solar power produces steam that drives turbines to produce electricity. The plant, the largest of its kind in the world, features a gross capacity of 392 megawatts, enough to power 140,000 homes. Each of the computer-controlled solar-reflecting mirrors is about the size of a garage door.
This image shows one of the plant's three towers when it's functioning properly and online. (Image: Aioannides)
A spokesperson for the plant said it's too early to comment on the cause, but it appears that misaligned mirrors are to blame. The Associated Press quoted Mike McClintock, the San Bernardino County fire captain, who said that some mirrors delivered sunlight to a different level on the third unit, causing electrical cables to catch fire.
Inevitably, the incident reveals the inherent dangers of concentrated solar power as well as the need to ensure that the mirrors are always on target. Concentrated solar power plants, in addition to being a menace to themselves, can also pose a hazard to local wildlife. Last year, a plant in Nevada torched over a hundred birds when they flew through the plant's "flux field".
It's yet another setback for the Ivanpah facility. For the past few months, the plant has been unable to meet the output levels stipulated in its power purchase agreement, and it was given an extension until 31 July 2016 to improve performance. This fire obviously isn't going to help.