Ivanpah Solar Thermal Plant Completes “First Sync”

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The first tower at the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station has been synced with the grid. Photo: Craig Dietrich

The Ivanpah Solar Generating Station, located in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada border, has completed its first synchronization, which is a major step toward full production. The plant’s operators, NRG Solar, announced the “first sync” on September 24, hailing it as a milestone for the California solar energy industry.

The Ivanpah solar thermal plant is the largest generator of its kind in the country, covering 3,500 acres. With a total generating capacity of 392 megawatts (MW), once completely operational the station will provide enough electricity to power 140,000 homes annually.

Synchronization Now, Solar Energy Next

“Given the magnitude and complexity of Ivanpah, it was very important that we successfully complete this milestone showing all systems were on track,” said Tom Doyle, President of NRG Solar, in a press release. “We couldn’t be more excited about achieving ‘first sync,’ and we share this success with our project partners, BrightSource and Google, as well as Bechtel, which is responsible for engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning on the project.”

Synchronization is an important part of integrating new power sources into the electric grid. In order for these plants to begin producing electricity for California rate payers, the operators must ensure that the voltage, current, frequency and phase angle matches that of the grid.

How Concentrated Solar Power Works at Ivanpah

Ivanpah generates electricity from sunlight using a solar thermal technology called Concentrating Solar Power (or CSP), which is different from the rooftop solar panels that AMECO installs on residences and businesses throughout Southern California. With CSP, thousands of large mirrors, called heliostats, concentrate sunlight and focus it onto a giant furnace in a tower hundreds of feet above the ground. The heat from that sunlight causes water to boil and generate steam, which spins a turbine connected to a generator. This technology is useful for utility scale power plants because it can run 24 hours a day with the use of thermal storage technology, whereas photovoltaic (PV) panels create electricity only when the sun is up.

However, solar thermal requires a massive system of mirrors that can track the movement of the sun, which makes it infeasible for use in homes.

There are three separate generator towers at Ivanpah. The first one, where the synchronization was performed, will deliver electricity to Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) under a power purchase agreement (PPA). Tower three is also contracted under a PPA with PG&E, while the second generator will provide power for Southern California Edison customers.

Ivanpah Achieving Clean Energy Goals for CA

In addition to NRG Solar, Brightsource Energy, Inc., Bechtel and Google all served as co-developers and investors in the Ivanpah project. It will help California meet its renewable energy goals, while also providing a source of electricity that emits no carbon dioxide and helps improve air quality. When the plant goes into full production mode sometime in 2014, it will be a major step in the state’s ongoing efforts to derive more power from the sun, and less from conventional fossil fuels.