The $1 Billion Solar Plant Is an Obsolete, Expensive Flop

The video above was recorded and published in 2013.

From Popular Mechanics

  • A $1 billion solar plant approved in 2011 never delivered what it promised and closed last year.

  • Solar farms are the new frontier in energy, with falling costs and myriad benefits.

  • A combination of terrible management and simple technological advancement turned the plant into a dinosaur.

Bloomberg reports that a planned $1 billion solar plant was out of date and obsolete before it could even be completed. The Crescent Dunes plant opened outside of Las Vegas in 2015, when its technology was already behind, and the solar boom since then has completely eclipsed it. Now, the closed and abandoned plant is the subject of huge ongoing lawsuits.

In a way, Crescent Dunes was like the Elon Musk dream solar farm of its heyday after construction was approved in 2011. It covers about 300 acres with thousands of solar collectors that power a central molten salt tower. In 2011, a handful of companies presented plans for the plant and received over $700 million in government loan guarantees.

The tower was the work of SolarReserve Inc., and the rest of the plant was designed and built by ACS Cobra. SolarReserve’s website isn’t online as I write this, and more than one of its projects has ended in the possibility of bankruptcy.

Even at peak operation, “[i]ts power cost [Nevada] about $135 per ­megawatt-hour, compared with less than $30 per MWh today at a new Nevada photovoltaic solar farm,” Bloomberg writes. That’s not necessarily a reflection on the structure or management at Crescent Dunes, but a reflection on how rapidly the price of solar technology has fallen.

The total cost of Crescent Dunes was $1 billion for a promised 110 megawatts on 300 acres. Now, the Trump administration is approving a $1 billion plant that will make 690 megawatts on over 7,000 acres. The solar dollar is going a lot further in 2020.

From the beginning, Crescent Dunes generated buzz and controversy alike. In 2011, solar had much less of a public profile than it does now, and approving ambitious solar projects could seem like tilting at windmills. But the Department of Energy (DoE), whose overall portfolio includes $38 billion in projects in the same vein as Crescent Dunes, invests in a variety of projects at all stages.

The Department of Defense has more of the government’s high-profile “moon shot”-type investments with DARPA, the Spruce Goose, and other famous weirdies—but in the short term, the government invests in cutting-edge science, too. The Air Force and NASA fund tons of university research. And as in any form of investment, there's risk involved.

And public money has another layer of trouble. Because of the way public contracts are bid for, won, and fulfilled, the companies chosen to complete projects are often the best at the application process, and not necessarily the best at the work the project really involves. Indeed, despite the $737 million taxpayer money and an additional $140 million from private investors, Crescent Dunes never reached the initial promises; the best-case scenarios were already outmoded by the 2015 opening.

Instead of 50 percent efficiency, the plant hovered at 20 percent. And the plant only ever secured one client, NV Energy, which couldn’t rely on the plant to do its part. Bloomberg reports that even though the plant shut down in April 2019, NV Energy wasn’t allowed to sever its agreement with the plant until late in 2019, after the DoE was forced to take over the shuttered plant in August. SolarReserve took the DoE to court.

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