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US Pays $2B To Develop Concentrating Solar Power Projects 219

coondoggie writes "The US Department of Energy today said it was conditionally committing $2 billion to develop two concentrating solar power projects that it says will offer 500 megawatts of power combined, effectively doubling the nation's currently installed capacity of that type of power. Concentrated solar systems typically use parabolic mirrors to collect solar energy."
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US Pays $2B To Develop Concentrating Solar Power Projects

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  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:28PM (#36454852)

    A link to the actual press release [energy.gov]

    First of all, these aren't grants or direct money (as the summary seems to imply), they're loan guarantees. And if you read the press release, it's pretty clear this is a helluva lot less about producing clean energy than producing jobs in California.

    Like so many government-funded and government-backed programs these days (NASA, I'm looking in your direction), this is basically a just a jobs program. Some Senator gets to go back to his district and say he created jobs. Whether these plants actually ever create any energy is anyone's guess.

    • by chemicaldave ( 1776600 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:37PM (#36454920)

      Whether these plants actually ever create any energy is anyone's guess.

      Without loan guarantees we would never know one way or the other.

      • by PinchDuck ( 199974 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @05:07PM (#36455280)

        You're right. What company in their right mind would want to produce something that is going to be in constant and ever increasing demand? They would have a guaranteed customer base, guaranteed scarcity, and guaranteed profits. Yup, no company in their right mind would ever want to be a part of that. Thank God that Uncle Sam is here to fill the gap. We should pour money into projects like this right up until the day we default.

        • What company in their right mind would want to produce something that is going to be in constant and ever increasing demand?

          If there's an option that costs less but maybe has higher externalized costs (like in terms of pollution)? I don't know. I suppose that depends on what you mean by "right mind." If you mean "What their mindset should be if they weren't made up of a bunch of greedy bastards" then the answer would be all power companies.

          But "right mind" for companies seems to more often mean "PROFIT NOW NOW NOW!!!" So the answer is "None of them."

          Same reason why we use tax dollars to fund basic biomedical research:

        • by rahvin112 ( 446269 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @10:52PM (#36458418)

          Not a Dime. It's a a loan guarantee. It's entire purpose is to allow the borrower to borrow the money to build at government interest rates (currently 3%) rather than the market rates that would likely be MUCH MUCH higher for a power plant with an unproven design (by unproven I mean there aren't 50,000 of them). Something like this helps develop technology like this without high interest rates that make the project uneconomic. Because the reality is you can't build a power plant and make money at 9% interest rates and only proven technology (as in 20% of the nations power is generated by the technology) is given market rates.

          The single greatest barrier to the development of new technology is the interest rate barrier that applies to such projects. Banks assume because it's not "proven" that there is a higher risk of default and charge much higher interest rates. Those higher rates make projects ROI negative or so small as to essentially make the project worthless. If we want to move away from Coal power and to carbon-less sources of power we MUST provide loan guarantees and grants to move the projects from theory to reality. Unlike what politicians these days like to tell you the purpose of government is help move the infrastructure and the country as a whole forward. When you put market forces behind infrastructure you inevitably end up with little to no progress without economic incentive to move forward. Coal is cheap, the technology is proven, if we want to move away from coal (and I do) then Government needs to help find the alternative technology that's just as good because the reality is the banks don't like risk and power is a business where margins are razor thin. Power and Energy are national security issues, we've forgotten that as a nation, particularly if people like you post such sarcastic posts and ignore the reality of the market and it's driving forces.

      • Without loan guarantees we would never know one way or the other.

        Really? And why is that? Is it because the risk reward is too low for a private company to build a plant?

        lf a corporation (not necessarily an American one) thought they could profit by building one of these it would be built. That they will only do so with a government backstop against failure indicates these plants are not economically viable.

    • Problem is that these projects might not even get off the ground. There are environmental challenges in state and federal courts about the locations of these and the harm they cause to local wildlife. The Mojave project has already lost one battle and been forced to move to a secondary location. No Senator or Rep is going to touch it until it gets past green hurdles, and it probably won't given the strength of that lobby in CA.
    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      . Whether these plants actually ever create any energy is anyone's guess.

      Um, huh? If you spend $2B on power plants that don't produce power, that's not a bragging point; that's the central point of your opponents' attack ads against you.

      • Usually it takes long enough for the plants to be either built and fail or to be abandoned, that people will forget who pushed it through; who was the Senator that the bridge to nowhere paid for?

    • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @05:07PM (#36455276)

      if you read the press release, it's pretty clear this is a helluva lot less about producing clean energy than producing jobs in California

      Just because a press release is phrased a certain way doesn't mean a project is actually "about" that. The press release is just a gauge of today's political winds.

      Look at Secretary Chu's statement:

      "These projects represent an important step in the development of solar as an affordable, clean energy resource in this country," said Secretary Chu. "By investing in the commercial-scale deployment of solar technologies, we can create greater efficiencies that will lower the cost of solar power while creating jobs and increasing our global competitiveness in this key industry."

      What part of that is incorrect, or admits the possibility that this is "basically just a jobs program?" I don't see why Concentrated Solar can't be scaled up affordably.

    • by BJ_Covert_Action ( 1499847 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @05:28PM (#36455542) Homepage Journal
      Yeah! It's not like NASA has any current missions that are providing valuable science to our society [nasa.gov] at all. It's nothing but a worthless jobs program!

      I don't necessarily agree or disagree with the rest of your post, but please educate yourself about the space industry before commenting on it. I'm getting really tired of correcting ignorance on what is supposed to be a News for Nerds site. Thanks.
      • Sorry but most of the NASA missions on that list will have no effect on the day-to-day life of people on earth. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not all that high on my priority list. Birth of the cosmos, water on Mars, xray radiation, etc. will not improve the quality of life here on earth. How about we deal with things here on earth before we spend money on the universe. Sure there are a few projects dealing with climatology that are important but most of them are cool but of no practical purpose.

        • result in killing funny lookin furiners in order to seize their resources, or create a darker black for velvet Elvis artwork, scientific knowledge tends to have a way of finding uses. Reality is not just limited to the whining of a few loud individuals who don't want to grow up and actually pay for the tab they've rung up.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by nonguru ( 1777998 )
          I seem to remember a posting on Slashdot regarding "anti-intellectualism" amongst nerds. Not everything in life has to have a direct dollar value. Pure research may not have a direct practical outcome - ever - and when it does, it involves decades-long pay-off times, but I would not be arrogant enough to write it off totally. Some things have a 'utlity' value - it's valuable because we derive satsifaction from discovering new knowledge. (And I'm an ex-engineer having been involved in the most utilitarian o
  • Anyone care to take bets on how long before some senator/representative (likely from a state where coal or oil extraction is a major source of revenue) denounces this as the perfect example of government waste and interference in "free market" for energy?

    • Are you saying it's not?

      • The energy market is certainly NOT free. Oil is heavily subsidized by Uncle Sam with billions spent in tax giveaways to oil companies and trillions for that oil war in Iraq.
    • Well, I'm from liberal about-to-legalize-gay-marriage (wo0t!) New York and I think it's a ridiculous waste of money too. 2 Billion dollars for a 500 megawatt generating plant? Please. This is some kind of sick joke.

      The 500 MW is obviously peak power output, meaning that average power is going to be 200 MW, TOPS. 2 BILLION dollars for a 150 MW generating station. That's beyond pathetic. A natural gas fired station that provided that kind of power output could be built for 5% of that kind of money. The argume

  • TFT talks about a payment, but if you follow links you end up at this page [greentechmedia.com] which talks about loan guarantees instead.

  • Is concentrating solar power into "power plants" the best way? Wouldn't it make more sense to distribute the collection over a large area, namely every persons house?
    • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:41PM (#36454970)

      Is concentrating solar power into "power plants" the best way? Wouldn't it make more sense to distribute the collection over a large area, namely every persons house?

      Big businesses make better campaign contributors than "every persons"

      • Big business also pays more for power and who's going to sell the power from a grid of homes? There's no profit there, so nobody would do it. No power for big business == no jobs, no houses with solar panels.

    • How would companies get paid if you were allowed to make your own power? Communist!
      • by gnick ( 1211984 )

        How would companies get paid if you were allowed to make your own power?

        Allowed to make your own power? Are people actually being prevented by companies from installing solar panels now? I know some home-owners associations have blocked them, but they're not the power company and are typically run democratically by the home-owners.

    • by gnick ( 1211984 )

      One of the several advantages that this type of plant provides is continuous power - Rain or shine. I guess you COULD set something like that up at home if you've got a big yard for mirrors, but personally I don't want a basement full of molten salt. Not to mention that I enjoy turning my lights on when it's dark, not just when the sun's shining. The battery alternative is just environmentally irresponsible and kind of a PITA. For these plants, you basically need a bunch of glass (where will we ever fin

      • I don't know about where you live, but where I live, the amount of power I need when it's dark is pretty low: just lights (CF), refrigerator, computer, etc. In the daytime, however, we have to run the A/C nearly constantly. Solar power is perfect for this environment as it provides all the power right when I need it the most to run the A/C.

    • by hackertourist ( 2202674 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:53PM (#36455104)

      You need both. Solar power is low-density, so you need a lot of area to gather enough power.

      When you install PV on rooftops, it doesn't provide enough power for buildings with more than a couple of floors. I did some calculations recently for my own apartment building: a roof full of PV panels provided just enough power for one floor of the building, assuming the national average domestic power consumption.

      CSP can supplement power generation for high-density areas (cities). It can also easily provide nighttime power by using heat storage. This is more difficult to do with house-sized PV (you need huge battery banks in each house, or a central storage system, e.g. a pumped water storage facility).

    • No. It wouldn't make sense. The economies of scale just aren't there for distributed generation. It is a libertarian pipe dream.
    • Thermal tracking systems can collect more energy if there is direct sunlight. Clouds really cause them problems though. In the desert, these systems can make the most sense. Where there are clouds, such as in Germany, PV does better. It does not care all that much about the angle the light is coming from, including from all angles. It is not clear how much more costs can fall for thermal solar power plants. These sound like they may cost 4 or 5 dollars a Watt. PV will certainly cost less, much less,
      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Yeah, PV panels are half what they were a couple years ago, now that there's no silicon production shortage. And even inverter prices are down from where they used to be; a couple years ago when I looked, the cheapest I found was $0.70/W; now I'm finding some under $0.50/W.

        I'm thinking about doing my own rooftop install, but I don't want to end up with some sort of ghetto solar panel system. Are there any places you can go to learn about how to do it *properly*, in line with manufacturer specifications?

    • Yes as having power generated at the site of usage removes the transmission loss from the equation thus improving overall energy usage efficiency.

      No because most all solar power used at residences are silicone panel collectors, which use a lot more raw materials for the energy output they produce compared to concentrating arrays (which use lots of space with mirrors which are much cheaper to produce (both in costs and energy/waste usage) than panels for the same energy output, but require more physical spa
      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Our grid averages 92.8% transmission efficiency. That's not a lot of loss.

    • Is concentrating solar power into "power plants" the best way? Wouldn't it make more sense to distribute the collection over a large area, namely every persons house?

      As I understand it, this method is cheaper per megawatt than PV panels are, and it is also able to generate energy at night. Downsides are that it works best on a large scale, and that if ever the molten salt would solidify, the plant would be dead. It's also relatively unproven technology that due to the large size requires large investments.

      So is this the way to go? It seems to me that there will be circumstances where this makes more sense, and circumstances where PV panels make more sense. Therefore, t

    • by Shivetya ( 243324 )

      First is the same reason why solar plants are such a pain to situate, they take far more area per MW than any fossil/nuclear plant. Already there are people suing to stop some of these new solar plants over their affect on a rare turtle that lives in one part of the desert. Plus panels need maintenance, this includes cleaning. Do we want a neighborhood of idiots trying to clean panels (where do they get the water for that I wonder) let alone the fact many would never do it meaning the ROI would be horrible.

  • by hackertourist ( 2202674 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:40PM (#36454958)

    Actual information about the Mojave Solar Project can be found here [abengoasolar.com] and here [abengoasolar.com].
    The technology used in the MSP isn't entirely new (has been used in at least one other plant) but looks to be an incremental improvement.
    The plant features heat storage using molten salt, and won't be using fossil fuels as nighttime backup.

  • Basically focusing the suns rays into a laser beam that super heats salt. The superheated salt runs a steam turbine. Of course the mirrors could be focused to take down overhead aircraft or satellites as well.
    • by gnick ( 1211984 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:50PM (#36455064) Homepage

      Of course the mirrors could be focused to take down overhead aircraft or satellites as well.

      OK - Now I'm sold. The equivalent of burning an ant w/ a magnifying glass, but huge and in space? Count me in!

    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:53PM (#36455106) Homepage

      Which would be just awesome. ;) Can you imagine getting the automated phone call:

      To PG&E customers in your area: We regret to inform you that your area will be experiencing rolling blackouts this afternoon as we utilize our power plants as massive solar death rays against the hardware of our nation's foes. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. As a token of apology, we invite you to enjoy a spectacular light show in the sky at no expense to you.

    • Of course the mirrors could be focused to take down overhead aircraft or satellites as well.

      No they can't. These plants use parabolic trough [wikipedia.org] mirrors. I.e. you have a row of mirrors, and the energy is focused into a pipe that's suspended in front of the row.

  • Price per Home (Score:5, Insightful)

    by im_thatoneguy ( 819432 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:42PM (#36454978)

    $2B in loan guarantees for 100,000 homes. I wonder if they're guaranteeing the entire cost of the plants or just a part of the financing.

    That would work out to $20k per home.

    Average monthly bill for a home is approximately $100 a month. So $1200 per year. 12 year pay-off ignoring operating expenses and maintenance.

    Sounds like a good investment.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      Yeah, but you don't get 100% of the power bill for the construction of the plant.

      Think double or triple your pay off period once you factor in ongoing labor, maintenance, etc. 30 year payoff.

      • Re:Price per Home (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @05:08PM (#36455298) Homepage

        I can't speak for solar, but with wind, O&M is generally less than a fifth of the construction cost. I'd expect solar to be even less.

        One nice thing about solar relates to grid stabilization. With wind, any turbine you add to the grid destabilizes it. At low penetration, the effect is quite small, easily dwarfed by demand instabilities, mind you, but it's still worth consideration. With solar however, at low penetrations, you're offsetting the increased demand that bright, sunny days impart to the grid. Low penetration of solar over a broad geographical area actually helps stabilize the grid, even without energy storage. Note the "geographical" component, mind you; having just one plant is vulnerable to the "a cloud just showed up" phenomenon (unless we get a smart grid, or at least a data exchange with power-hungry industries; barring that, you need integrated or standalone peaking -- although integrated peaking is pretty darned easy (see SEGS))

      • Nah, no way solar plants need that much maintenance and labour, two thirds of the cost of power sales? Worst case I'd say 24 years, which is what, a 4% ish return on investment? Not too bad, matches inflation anyway. A more likely case is 5 or 6%. Still not great, but quite acceptable for a utility.

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          If they can return 6%, why aren't people lining up to build them instead of needing the dept. of Energy to guarantee $2 billion in loans?

          I'm all for alternative energy and believe in a Manhattan project for energy research, but there's a reason that big money capitalism isn't willing to invest that kind money -- there really isn't guaranteed money to be made there. If there was, they would invest.

          Needless to say, I think you're all wildly optimistic about the kind of margins this project yields. It may be

    • by blair1q ( 305137 )

      $2B in loan guarantees is not $2B in cost. Unless the plant goes belly-up, which should be a low-probability event for something this simple. The expected-value of the cost on this probably about $50-100M, so the gov't is effectively spending about $1k per house.

      But if it works, it's spending $0.

      But if it doesn't work, it's spending that $20k/house for electricty those houses will never see.

      • $2B in loan guarantees is not $2B in cost. Unless the plant goes belly-up, which should be a low-probability event for something this simple. The expected-value of the cost on this probably about $50-100M, so the gov't is effectively spending about $1k per house.

        Right, I was just curious though what the actual cost of the project was that we were guaranteeing in the interest of seeing how competitive it was with coal.

        • by blair1q ( 305137 )

          Coal kills an enormous number of people every year, between the miners, the environmental damage from the mining, the transport, the burning, and the environmental damage from the burning.

          There's no way to cost-compare it to anything. It's only cheap to those it don't kill.

    • errr.. 17 year pay-off. Not sure where I came up with 12.

    • You think the average home pays $100 for power in California? Heh. Not if you live in the desert and run your AC at 50c/kWh.

      $20k/home could install small-scale solar on all of these houses, and without the inevitable lawsuits (the Sierra Club has successfully blocked two sites already, costing $$) and cost overruns. It also demonstrates that the supposed economy of scale benefit from large scale solar are also illusory.

      • It will be damn small scale. We just looked into solar PV for a similar (AC-hogging, pool) rental property in Florida. To cover the entire bill would require a $75k system.

        And it would still require us to purchase power from the grid at night. Yes, we could "sell" back to the grid during the day, but someone somewhere would still be burning fossile fuels for us at night. This plant generates power 24 hours a day.

    • 5 year payoff is generally considered a good investment (It's an APR of 14% per annum)

      12 year payoff is usually considered a fairly bad investment (It's an APR of 5% per annum)

      And your money is at risk in both cases...

  • Why not more? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MoldySpore ( 1280634 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @04:58PM (#36455156)

    Really? Only $2Bil? When we are spending $708 Billion on defense? Why are we only putting up 0.0028% of the annual defense budget towards renewable, clean energy like this? Not sure how this makes sense. While it is nice to see a number in the Billions being put towards a project like this, I have a hard time taking the initiatives seriously when there are so many other bloated budgets we could chop down in size to put towards initiatives like this...

    • It's $2B for these two projects. $30B total [greentechmedia.com], but that includes all 'green technologies', incl. some nuclear power projects and several car projects.

    • by blair1q ( 305137 )

      It's less than that. A loan guarantee for $2B is not $2B in cash. Divide by 20-40, there. 0.00007-0.00014%.

      And why? Because the MIC has a much better lobby than the alternative-energy people do.

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      Worse: These are loan guarantees, not grants. The military never pays back its budget with interest.

    • It is probably best that you don't assume anything involving the annual defense budget of the U.S. makes sense. Correct that basic assumption about economic policy in this country and you will start to understand why political decisions get made the way they do.
    • by TheSync ( 5291 )

      Only $2Bil? When we are spending $708 Billion on defense?

      Did you vote for a candidate of a party whose platform says "The United States should both avoid entangling alliances and abandon its attempts to act as policeman for the world"?

    • It's ridiculous how much they spend on defense.

      So many world problems would be solved if the US would demilitarize.

  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Wednesday June 15, 2011 @05:06PM (#36455270)

    Solar thermal concentrating power stations to provide electricity to run air conditioning.

  • $2B for a measely 500kwh? Pathetic! Solar just won't cut it. It's a technology for sunny states, but not so much for the rest of the nation. Shame GreenPeace isn't allowing cold states to develop alternate energy solutions that work in states with weather.

Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. -- Thomas Jefferson