On Thursday, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which is the world’s largest solar thermal power station, reported that a small fire had broken out at the facility. The fire caused the plant to shut down one of its electricity-generating water towers and left the high-tech facility crippled, only operating at one-third capacity. Officials from the plant are now saying that the blame for the fire can be placed on misaligned mirrors.
The $2.2 billion station is operated by a consortium, which includes BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy, and Google, and has taxpayer-guaranteed loans valued at over $1.6 billion. The three 459-foot water towers are the focus of over 350,000 computer controlled mirrors – as “big as garage doors” – reflecting sunlight onto them. This concentrated solar exposure creates a tremendous amount of heat, which in turn creates the steam which is necessary to turns the turbines in order to produce electricity. The plant in California, which is the largest of its kind in the world, features a gross capacity of 392 megawatts, enough power to give energy to about 140,000 homes.
— Popular Science (@PopSci) May 20, 2016
Unfortunately, according to reports from Tech Times, the reason the tower caught fire is because these very mirrors were said to have been focusing the sunbeams at improper angles to different portions of the tower. Though officials declined to comment on the cause of the fire, Capt. Mike McClintock from San Bernardino County, California, relayed the information based on his assessment. Unit 3 caught fire as a result of the misaligned mirrors, which focused direct sunlight on the electrical cables, catching them on fire.
Fire officials have reported that the blaze, which occurred at approximately 9:30 a.m., first began on the upper levels of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, and for the responding firefighters, battling the blaze was no easy task, as they were required to climb the tower that was on fire in order to properly fight it. Firefighters were forced to climb some 300 feet up the boiler tower to get to the scene. Prior to the arrival of the firefighters, though, workers at the plant had managed to subdue most of the flames and officially, it only took about 20 minutes from the time it started before it was extinguished.
The May 19 fire temporarily left the major electric supply facility unable to operate as in addition to the tower which the fire destroyed, a second tower was already down due to a scheduled maintenance. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) is located in California and at the moment it is unclear exactly how, or if, the incident will impact California’s electricity supply. The restarting of the damaged tower is something that is also in question.
The solar power plant is located on public property in the Mojave Desert and sprawls over five square miles, or about 4,000 acres.
Gizmodo highlighted the inherent dangers of solar power plants, stating that the incident is a revelation of this in itself and the dangers of concentrated solar power should be noted as well as the need for companies to ensure that the mirrors needed are always properly on target.
The destructive force of the concentrated solar power plants are capable of doing damage to more than just themselves and can actually pose a threat to local wildlife, as well. Just last year, the solar plant in Nevada essentially torched over a hundred birds when they flew through the “flux field” of the plant. The impact on birds is an issue the solar plant has long been experiencing.
This fire is yet another setback for the Ivanpah facility, as it has previously been unable to meet the output levels outlined in its power purchase agreement for a few months now. The company was granted an extension to July 31, 2016, to improve their overall performance. This incident has only added fuel to the fire.
[Photo by John Locher/AP Images]