Ivanpah Makes Case for Natural Gas

German Renewables  - Tom Shepstone ReviewsTom Shepstone
Shepstone Management Company, Inc.

The Ivanpah solar project in Southern California is making a powerful statement about the importance of natural gas in our energy portfolio.

We’ve published more than a few stories on this blog about Eric Schmidt and his Ivanpah solar project, torched turtles, streamers and all. Schmidt is a founder of Google, the second biggest corporation in the US (after Apple). He also a major fractivist funder and has honored others including the insufferable Mark Ruffalo. Still, he has also spoken positively about fracking, noting “fracking technology changed the entire energy equation for America” and created middle class jobs.

What gives? What accounts for this split personality? Well, Schmidt surely knows how to act politically correct with the hipsters who work in his industry. No doubt he has a message designed to appeal to anyone at a given time. He also appears to have a wife who wants to be known as an environmental philanthropist, which is hardly a surprise. Finally, he has deep financial interests in solar energy with which natural gas could be argued to compete and he needs to keep fracking under control for pricing purposes. But, there may be another reason Schmidt talks through two bullhorns at once; his Ivanpah project depends on natural gas and he needs more of it.

Ivanpah Moves to Incease Natural Gas Usage

The news about Ivanpah’s natural gas usage and desire to increase it, made the pages of the Arizona Daily Independent last week, as well as Hockey Schtick. Both are excellent in their exposure of the incredible irony involved in the world’s largest solar energy facility needing more gas. Gee, could the argument we’ve been making all along – that renewables and natural gas are made for each other and renewables make little sense without such a partnership – be any more clear? But, after reading the Ivanpah application to increase its natural gas use there are several more observations that need to be made.

ivanpah 2

I laughed out loud, for example, when I read this explanation of why Ivanpah (which sounds like some hideous character from a Bram Stoker novel) needed to request a 60% increase in the maximum allowable annual fuel usage limit:

For some aspects of operation, the only way to fully understand how the systems work has been through the experience of operating the powerplants.

This is California, of course, the home of Nancy Pelosi (“we have to pass the law to learn what’s in it”), but comparisons to her justification for passing Obamacare are far from fair. We naively hope our legislators will read major laws before voting on them, but it’s undeniably true a technology can never be fully tested without being put into use first.

We learn from experience, which is a continuum but, what the heck happened to the paralyzing precautionary principle that fractivists would apply to hydraulic fracturing? Fracking’s been around 60+ years, horizontal drilling (the real innovation of recent years) has been used regularly for 15 years or so and, still, they say we shouldn’t proceed in some places without addressing their imaginary concerns, the substance of which is thinner than stone soup.

This is another instance of the double standard employed by fractivists. Can you imagine the reaction if a natural gas industry representative told a regulator or the public “the only way [we will be able] to fully understand how the systems work [will be] through the experience of operating”? We would be pounded into frac sand with hyperbole by the other side. Our explanation would be viewed with more disdain than the family dog hopping on the Thanksgiving dinner table. Can’t you just hear the shrieking now?

Yes, it’s just fine for a solar project developer to need experience and to learn from it, just as it’s hunky-dory for them to fry birds in mid-air, but no drilling or fracking or fracking can occur if there’s the remotest possibility, in the mind of any fractivist anywhere, that it might create an issue at any time in the future.  Perfection is their minimum standard for us, and learn by doing is their prescription for themselves.

What Ivanpah Demonstrates About Natural Gas

I’m pleased to say there are a lot of positives for natural gas in the Ivanpah application, though. Ivanpah makes a powerful statement about the importance of natural gas, in fact. This begins with the simple fact the project obviously depends on natural gas. Just as we have said here ad infinitum, solar needs a balancer and a backup. Here’s what the application says (emphasis added):

Auxiliary boilers typically need to operate an average of approximately 4.5 hours a day during startup (an increase from 1 hour daily average originally expected) in order to ensure that (1) steam flow is sufficient to carry excess heat from the receivers in the towers, and (2) when weather conditions are sufficient to permit plant operation, plant equipment and systems are ready to operate as designed.

Actual operation of the plants informs the need for additional fuel use during some days to compensate for intermittent cloud cover in order to maintain peak power production and prevent the steam turbine from tripping off line.

When cloud cover is dense enough and/or persists long enough to trip the plant offline, steam generated by the auxiliary boilers is needed to restart solar power production.

Auxiliary boiler operation is needed at the end of the day to stabilize/support steam turbine operation, particularly during the peak summer period, to maximize the capture of solar energy as solar insolation declines.

Based on this experience, Petitioner has revised the annual operating scenario to account for the need to operate the boiler more often during the daily startup period; during periods of intermittent cloud cover to maintain peak output and to prevent steam turbine trips; for restarts of a power block due to extended periods of cloud cover; at the end of the day to extend the capability for solar power production; and to account for days when a system start is terminated when it becomes apparent that persistent cloud cover precludes operation of the solar collectors.

I couldn’t possibly say it any better; the facility demands natural gas to get started every day, to cover periods when the sun isn’t shining, for restarts after such periods and to maximize solar energy capture. It’s absolutely essential, in other words, and this doesn’t even begin to take into account the need to balance the energy supply available to off-site users. This is why Invanpah wants to not only increase the amount of natural gas it uses but to also completely eliminate the 5% cap now in place.

Ivanpah from space

Ivanpah from space

But, there’s more. Some critics are noting the increased natural gas use will generate more carbon emissions and dwell on that irony of that given the facility was supposed to avoid emissions, but that’s only important if you think CO2, one of the foundations of life, is a pollutant and our lower CO2 today as a result of fracking is not helping. Moreover, Ivanpah won’t be classified a major source of it even after expansion of gas use and if you’re evaluating one facility versus the net impact of all facilities including those coal to gas conversions that have dramatically lowered CO2, you’re stuck on stupid ideology.

If Natural Gas Is So Clean, What is Ivanpah About?

Regardless, we can debate that another day. What interests me much more is Table 3 from the application. The application, while noting the potent to increase emissions of some pollutants, also states “the proposed changes…will not result in any additional potential significant impacts beyond those already identified.” Once again, the critics have jumped on this as an impossibility, but it’s true and reveals something much bigger.

How can this be? Well, here’s the explanation:

Modeling results from the air quality impact analysis performed for the February 2012 Petition to Amend [an earlier application to amend] were scaled up based on the potential increase in emissions, and compared with applicable standards. The estimated annual Project impacts are still less than 0.05 μg/m3 for all pollutants with an annual ambient air quality standard; the Project impacts therefore round down to 0.0.

The emissions are so low as to be irrelevant, in other words; even after expanding natural gas use by 60%, they are still effectively zero. Here’s Table 3 (emphasis added):

Ivanpah Table 3

Notice how very far below the national air quality standards the Ivanpah emissions fall. Only the background levels take it over the state limit and then only in the case of the 24 hour limit for one standard (PM10) which, on an annual basis, met the standard. The emissions contributions of Ivanpah, even with increased use of gas, don’t amount to anything. This raises the obvious question – why should natural gas be limited at all? That, of course, is, effectively what Ivanpah’s owners are saying. There is no legal or practical reason to Do so, which raises still another question – what exactly is the point of Ivanpah if it makes so little difference?

This is not to suggest the project isn’t worth pursuing as an experiment to demonstrate how natural gas and renewables can be effectively combined. Indeed, the project makes a compelling case for exactly this. That’s why I’m starting to warm up to it a bit, notwithstanding the massive subsidies involved and the “streamers.” It proves what we’ve been saying.

The only question is why Eric Schmidt, who clearly understands what a marvelous piece of technology hydraulic fracturing really is, wastes his money funding so many fractivist initiatives. Is he trying to cover both bases, keep his wife happy or hoping to keep natural gas prices from dropping too much and economically undermine his project?

We’ll never know, of course, but, in the meantime we can suggest he might be better off acknowledging what is more than obvious as a result of Ivanpah; it makes an extremely compelling case for natural gas.

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27 thoughts on “Ivanpah Makes Case for Natural Gas

  1. Sounds like George Soros. These are just some of the organization Soros directly funds for antie energy policy. I may have missed a few.

    Brookings Institution, Center for American Progress, Democracy Now, Earthjustice, Energy Action Coalition, Green For All, Media Matters for America, MoveOn.org, National Public Radio, Natural Resources Defense Council, New America Foundation, NewsCorpWatch, Pro Publica, Think Progress, Tides Foundation, Tides Center, Union of Concerned Scientists.

    and here are his investments in oil and gas companies;

    Consol Energy, Halliburton, EQT, Pioneer Natural Resources, Penn Virginia, YPF Sociedad Anonima, Energen Corporation, Devon Energy, Petrobras, Adira.


  2. It apparently takes little to amuse you, Tom. The natural gas used to manage the operation of the Ivanpah boilers is less that 5% of the heat generated there by the sun. There requirements for natural gas are to help maximize the performance and the needs were estimated before its operation. The only reason they have to go through this revised permitting process is because of the strict emission regulations and the fact that the CO2 from natural gas combustion is a greenhouse gas.

    To produce the same amount of power from natural gas alone would take 20 times the natural gas and yield at least 20 times the pollution.

    • You obviously don’t read except to see what you want to see. They are eliminating the 5% cap because it doesn’t work and my point is that even with the new emissions it doesn’t come close to being an air problem, unless you’re obsessed with Co2, which, of course, you are.

      • I read quite well, Tom. Please find for me the new percentage cap. I could not find it. Since it’s only a 60% increase of NG use, at most it would be 8% – but no mention. So my guess is they don’t even come close to the 5% but need more supplemental heat to optimize operations.

        By the way, it’s the climate that is obsessed with CO2 – not me. Even more so methane. Funny thing about atmospheric physics – it has no politics and apologizes for no one.

          • I saw that: “The project owner shall collect data showing the thermal energy in the steam received at the steam turbine from the solar receiver; the energy from natural gas used to produce steam in the auxiliary boiler; and the electrical output from the steam turbine.”

            They eliminated the percent cap. So?

          • But you have to admit, it’s a very small fraction of the energy the three facilities generate. Would you agree it’s 8% at worst?

            You’ll have to talk to the California Energy Commission on whether the CO2 emissions are a concern or not. Given the amount of paperwork seen here, I’d say it’s a concern.

          • You’re missing my point that there will be no limit anymore except as to the practical output of the boilers and there might was as well be no limits on that either, given the lack of any significant air quality impacts (unless you’re a green Californian obsessed with CO2 which is the very definition of green in the plant world). Let the readers judge!

          • And you’re missing my point (or purposely ignoring it). CSP is a great solution for generating industrial-scale power. Because it is a heat cycle it can include storage and that means 24/7 power. Ivanpah does not have storage so it was designed to use a small amount of NG to help with the tail-ends of it’s daily cycles. Big deal. What we should all be rejoicing is that will cut CO2 emissions by more than 400,000 tons annually. Oh, but I forgot, you’re paid not to care.

          • “I’m paid not to care” – You’re resorting to the standard argument of all fractivists when they want to shut down conversation or have nothing more to offer – “We’re right, you’re evil.” I care a heck a lot about the future of my family and neighbors who desperately need the jobs squashed by self-important ideologues and NIMBYs who want the world their way or no way it all. I got involved for precisely that reason and anyone who knows me, knows that’s the case. Once again, it would seem you might benefit from a “Condescension Management” session.

          • Tom, if you cared about the future of your family and your neighbors then you would care about CO2 and it’s buildup in the atmosphere. You’d similarly care about methane releases.

            If it’s jobs you want, then advocate for a Manhattan-Project for renewables rather than a clinging onto the end of the fossil fuel age and the O&G retirement party that fracking represents.

            Besides, it’s hardly condescension to point out that you are a professional lobbyist for the natural gas industry and are one of the few here getting paid to post. You’ll have to just pardon me when I take some of your “caring” with a grain of salt.

  3. At todays cost of solar energy only the rich can take a 28 percent increase in their monthly electric bill and still be able to eat. Is it not true the rich one percentors are financing blind activist who don’t see the big picture due to fog on the brain? Wake up and smell the gas… Gas is the salvation of a failing US economy

        • What would that have to do with anything being discussed here? We were talking about Vic’s claim that gas is the salvation of a failing US economy.

          It’s not. We have been choking on gas since the economy faltered in 2008. The reality is a strong economy is the salvation of weak gas prices.

          • Your statement about the economics of gas reveal a profound ignorance of what it’s done for the steel industry, the petrochemical industry, manufacturing, local economies, etc. Moreover, gas is a commodity where profits are made by innovation and reducing costs.

  4. Hi Tom, Cliff – moderate, centrist, environmentally minded average joe here. No special interests and no fringe opinions. Every heard of one of them? Maybe not.

    I think Cliff makes an important point, that even if Ivanpah uses gas it does so at a ~12.5x reduction in emitted greenhouse gasses. Albeit at a premium, but thats the rub of any maturing technology. Gas turbines have been around for a long time, while heliostats have not. Horizontal drilling has been an incredible boon for nat gas, with some hard work and funding Ivanpah mk II might be the same for solar thermal.

    Alternatively, Tom your articles says that if 60% more natural gas results in no more pollutants, then lets scrap the solar and go full natural gas. But clearly if you took the Ivanpah pollution model and ran it at 100% natural gas it would register some emissions. Sorry, nat gas does pollute. Just significantly less so than coal etc. We run forklifts indoors off nat gas. We also run electric forklifts next door to our 20 kW solar array. Look at the numbers. Solar (PV) and nat gas are both being installed in huge, growing numbers.

    But Cliff, you’re on a natural gas lobby website comments section trying to change someones mind, by making personal accusations against the writer? I think you have to admit you’re alienating more than helping your cause here.

    Tom as well, I think you discredit your own by lowering yourself to pejoratives and stalemate arguments over semantics. “Stupid.” Really?

    Lets be courteous professionals here and leave the name calling for children on the playground. You’re both supposed to be heroes to those kids, not imitating them. Then maybe we can have a sensible discussion about the topic at hand.


    • I much appreciate your observations, Mike and will, of course, consider them for the future, but the colloquial “stuck on stupid” is an entirely legitimate and humorous way to describe where someone lets ideology get in the way of facts. I must also add that Cliff’s comments, however inane I may find them, have stimulated interest, suggesting the debate benefits by a certain amount of outspokenness that draws in people and makes us all think, including you. Thank you for taking the time to write!

      • MIke, note that Tom refers to my comments as “inane” yet largely refuses to rebut them.

        It’s great that he appreciates my presence here but it should give him and his benefactors pause that his points can so easily be countered by an unaffiliated “civilian” possessing little beyond critical thinking skills and a browser.

        • I’d say we’ve done just fine, Cliff, but everyone is entitled to their opinions and I’m delighted to have yours including those high ones regarding yourself and I’m still wondering why you won’t take me up on my offer to write about wave energy.

    • Mike, you wrote, “But Cliff, you’re on a natural gas lobby website comments section trying to change someones mind, by making personal accusations against the writer? I think you have to admit you’re alienating more than helping your cause here.”

      Personal attacks and broad brushes seems to the be flavors of the day here and I try to avoid them, sticking to the points. But no, there is no hope of changing the minds of those whose fortunes depend on a flawed world view. My hope is that genuinely curious visitors might get a more balanced perspective.

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