A project that seemed to be taken from a science fiction novel, which had a billion dollar investment and several promises to revolutionize energy generation by means of the sun. One of the first solar thermal power plantsand who sought to become an example for the whole world.
This is the case of ‘Crescent Dunes’a solar plant that is now dead as it never achieved its goal as it was overwhelmed, ironically, by the success of solar energy, and even some bad management.
The United States wanted to “win the future”
It was the end of September 2011, and in the United States the launch of an ambitious solar power project known as ‘Crescent Dunes’which had the support of several private companies and even the government of President Barack Obama.
It was about a 110 MW solar thermal power plant (CSP) with a storage capacity of up to 1.1 GWh, which would be located near Tonopah, about 310 km northwest of Las Vegas, in the state of Nevada. The project was in charge of Tonopah Solar Energy and would be developed by SolarReserve, which was one of the largest companies in the development of solar energy.
To start the construction of the plant, Tonopah Solar Energy received 737 million dollars from the United States Department of Energy (DOE), in addition to private investments from Citigroup and other companies. Total, the budget was 1,000 million dollarswhich would serve to obtain the latest technology for the manufacture of a solar thermal plant.
To all this was added the support of various politicians, such as Harry Reid, a senator from Nevada, who was the one who granted permission for the construction of the plant on public land. There was even an event in Washington to celebrate this big step towards the adoption of renewable energy in the United States, where Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, declared that he was “proud” that everyone was doing something “to win the future”.
Solar/thermal energy even at night
The ‘Crescent Dunes’ project consisted of the installation of 10,347 mirrors (heliostats) that form a spiral more than three kilometers wide around a tower in the middle of the desert. With each mirror, the aim was to collect sunlight to concentrate thermal energy in said tower, almost 200 meters high, with the aim of heating molten salt that circulates from the tower to a storage tank, where it is used to produce steam and generate electricity.
Each heliostat is made up of 35 1.8-meter mirror plates, offering a total area of 115.7 square meters. The beauty of this method is that all the excess thermal energy is stored in the molten salt and can be used to generate power for up to ten hours, which even works at night and when there is no direct sunlight.
Victim of the success of solar energy
During the construction of the plant, SolarReserve closed a contract with NV Energy, which supplies energy to several areas of the state of Nevada, so that they were the only clients of the project with an exclusivity of 25 years. One of the conditions is that SolarReserve would freeze the price of the energy generated during that time.
The construction of ‘Crescent Dunes’ finished at the end of 2013, and after several tests and some delays during 2014, the plant formally began operating in september 2015. In October 2016, the plant had to be shut down due to a leak in a molten salt tank, and after repairs it returned to operation in July 2017.
The plant never managed to generate the energy promised by SolarReserve, which averaged 20% and was until 2018 when it reached its highest peak when it reached 40% of power generation. Given this, NV Energy decided to terminate the contract because in three years of operation the promised power generation was never reached, which led to the closure of ‘Crescent Dunes’ in April 2019.
To give us an idea of why NV Energy decided to abandon the project, in 2011 the generation of solar energy in the United States cost about 355 dollars per MWh, and betting on ‘Crescent Dunes’ would cost them only 135 dollars per MWh. What did not expect is that the cost of MWh will fall drastically in the coming years until reaching $50 in 2019, while they continued to pay it at $135. And if we add to this that they never obtained the amount of energy promised, then it was clear that the business was dead.
One of the biggest and most painful disasters of solar energy
NV Energy sued SolarReserve, which is currently involved in litigation and accusations of mismanagement of ‘Crescent Dunes’. And it is that the main problem was, curiously, its expensive technology, which was overwhelmed by the decrease in the prices of solar panels and the improvement in their efficiency in the last ten years. This means that a solar farm based on photovoltaic panels currently represents a fraction of the cost of operating a CSP plant, such as ‘Crescent Dunes’.
And it is that an installation like ‘Crescent Dunes’ also requires specific parts and qualified personnel to maintain the operation and be efficient, so the problem went beyond the simple generation of energy.
‘Crescent Dunes’ passed into the hands of the US Department of Energy in August 2019 as part of an expropriation of SolarReserve, this after not meeting the loan payment dates.
It is currently unknown what will happen to ‘Crescent Dunes’ exactly., although there are those who put on the table to resurrect the project. The only thing we know is that on the energy.gov website it is stated that “the project left the portfolio in December 2020”.
Meanwhile SolarReserve filed a lawsuit against the expropriation of the facility, where it in turn sued ACS Cobra, a Spanish company that was responsible for designing the salt tanks. According to the demand, the tanks were poorly designedwhich caused salt losses and had to stop the operation of the plant.
Nor is it known what will happen to the rest of the projects that are in charge of SolarReserve, such as ‘Sandstone’, whose investment exceeded 5,000 million dollars to build a 2,000 megawatt thermal plant.
Photos | DOE | BLM (2 and 3)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism