Desert plant has pollution problem

By David Danelski, The Press-Enterprise

A solar power plant at the center of the Obama administration’s push to reduce America’s carbon footprint by using millions of taxpayer dollars to promote green energy has its own carbon pollution problem.

The Ivanpah plant in the Mojave Desert uses natural gas as a supplementary fuel. Data from the California Energy Commission show that the plant burned enough natural gas in 2014–its first year of operation–to emit more than 46,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s nearly twice the pollution threshold for power plants or factories in California to be required to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions. The same amount of natural gas burned at a conventional power plant would have produced enough electricity to meet the annual needs of 17,000 homes–or roughly a quarter of the Ivanpah’s total electricity projection for 2014.

The plant’s operators say they are burning small amounts of natural gas in order to produce steam to jump-start the solar generating process. They said burning natural gas has always been part of the process. David Knox, a spokesman for NRG Energy, which runs the facility, said the plant still meets a state requirement that no more than 5 percent of its electricity production come from burning fossil fuel.

This rule, however, does not factor in the gas burned to heat water before enough steam is generated to produce electricity. That distinction is significant because it could affect the plant’s customers. Under state law, alternative energy plants can’t use more than 5 percent “nonrenewable” fuel for electricity generation. If a plant goes over that threshold, its electricity can’t count toward the state’s renewable energy goals.

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