back to article Google-backed solar electricity facility sets itself on fire

A troubled heliostatic power station is set to hit the anti-renewables meme-factories, after misaligned mirrors set the tower on fire. The Google-backed, US$2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System generates power by focussing sunlight on boilers at the top of three 140-metre (439-foot) towers and using the …

Anonymous Coward

Call Bond.

Scaramanga has stolen the solex agitator again.

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Predicting Problems

With all those mirrors, you'd have thought they'd have made a few extra ones and covered the 'delicate' parts of the towers with a reflective surface, precisely for this fault situation.

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Black Helicopters

Re: Predicting Problems

Surely that just moves the problem to somewhere else, like an outbuilding or neighbouring house, etc.

Think of the halls of mirrors, it would be like Russian roulette, optical edition.

Better software that has exclusion zones for places the power can't go would be a more robust solution

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Black Helicopters

Re: Predicting Problems

>> Surely that just moves the problem to somewhere else.

Not if the mirrors -- if they can be made at all, note: they'd need to withstand much more intense, focused rays -- were angled to reflect mis-aimed beams upwards.

Helicopter icon because said reflected beams may still hit an unfortunate one in the wrong place by chance... Would make for a hell of a movie-plot threat, that: terrorists hacking the control systems of a solar power plant to burn passenger jets out of the sky and discredit the renewable energy industry to hasten the End of the World, etc.

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LDS
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Joke

Re: Predicting Problems

Maybe it was this way Google buildings were set afire...

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Re: Predicting Problems

Imagine going nuts with a laser pen in there...

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Re: Predicting Problems

Up is somewhere else.

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Re: Predicting Problems

We've been melting salt with solar for decades. The "aiming" tech is well known. The gootard-backed company is obviously incompetent when it comes to this technology.

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Re: Predicting Problems

Surely a far simpler solution would be to lower the shutters over the mirrors. I should patent the idea. Except it is probably what they actually did. I know, on a mobile device ....

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Re: Predicting Problems

It was a misalignment, so some of the mirrors that reflect light were off-point and no one noticed until it was too late.

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Re: Predicting Problems

Quite likely. However with this kind of engineering and design the default position and/or configuration should be "safe", which is the general requirement for many industrial systems. Any lack of power or "incident" response should return the mirror to a default "safe" state (good luck with this on a power loss scenario). Part of this was probably in place, however automatic monitoring systems in the tower should have triggered an "incident" alert and all or some of the mirrors should have switched to a safe alignment automatically. Now implement this to a very strict build and maintenance budget...

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Re: Predicting Problems

"Safe alignment"? That would be due North, or face-down. That would require far greater range of motion than normal operation...

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Re: Predicting Problems

"Would make for a hell of a movie-plot threat..."

Die Hard From A Nasty Sunburn.

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Boffin

Re: Predicting Problems

Helicopter icon because said reflected beams may still hit an unfortunate one in the wrong place by chance..

Even if all of the primary mirrors (the ones that focus the sunlight on the top of the tower) were misaligned and hitting a safeguard mirror (one that is intended to reflect a beam that would otherwise hit a part of the tower that's not meant to be hit), the result would be a beam spreading out from that safeguard mirror. At double the height of the tower the beam would then be spread out over an area equal to the area covered by the mirrors on the ground, and the intensity of the reflected light at that point would be not more than the intensity of the sunlight itself, but from below instead of from the sky. The only caveat being the safeguard mirror being able to withstand the energy absorbed by it.

Simple optics, really.

And blasting a jet out of the sky would need the mirrors to track it for minutes. Pretty infeasible given the speed with which those mirrors move; not that that would bother a Hollywood script writer.

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Holmes

Re: Predicting Problems

Surely a far simpler solution would be to lower the shutters over the mirrors.

A sprinkler system at the top of the tower, but spreading mud* instead of water. If it needs to work in case of power loss it should be driven by a bunch of cylinders with compressed air.

* or see icon.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Predicting Problems

"Any lack of power or "incident" response should return the mirror to a default "safe" state"

Quite. What bunch of presentation-layer-pillocks designed this setup.

"good luck with this on a power loss scenario"

Thanks for the luck, but maybe what might be more useful is a big battery or even an actual generator, supplying a dedicated and possbly duplicated distribution setup for the critical equipment. And a regular test routine, just in case. A bit like the shutdown systems used to have on an oil rig (I haven't looked for ages, don't know if they still do).

"automatic monitoring systems in the tower should have triggered an "incident" alert and all or some of the mirrors should have switched to a safe alignment automatically. "

Indeed.

But then the safety critical software sector has only been around since (say) the 1960s when the first full authority digital engine controls (with no analogue backup) arrived (Concorde?).

Google probably specified the use of Agile and Android rather than Ada (not that Ada is a panacea).

So much to forget, so little time.

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Re: Predicting Problems

"

Safe alignment"? That would be due North, or face-down

"

I believe the usual method is to move each mirror to a pre-set different direction, ensuring that no matter what direction the Sun is, they cannot reflect in the same direction.

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Re: Predicting Problems

The mirror(s) pointing upward would be safe, too. (See post above. Okay, sunglasses wouldn't hurt.) This could be achieved by adding a counterweight - in case of power failure all mirrors tilt upward thanks to gravity. If one or several mirrors stop tracking correctly, pull the plug on them - mirrors tilt upwards.

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Re: Predicting Problems

"And blasting a jet out of the sky would need the mirrors to track it for minutes. Pretty infeasible given the speed with which those mirrors move; not that that would bother a Hollywood script writer."

Have you watched any Hollywood movies lately? This is way more feasible than most plots.

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Re: Predicting Problems

> If it needs to work in case of power loss it should be driven by a bunch of cylinders with compressed air

Yeah, it's not a PV array. The tower already contains thousands of L of superheated stream because, you know, it's kinda how the whole contraption actually works. Pretty sure they can figure out a way of converting some of that energy.

A spring loaded (or even gravity dropped) shutter could cut the power entirely within seconds for relatively little cost. Both could be passively activated.

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Re: Predicting Problems

Not if the mirrors -- if they can be made at all, note: they'd need to withstand much more intense, focused rays -- were angled to reflect mis-aimed beams upwards.

... or if those mirrors were made convex, so that they would defocus the beams making them (relatively) harmless.

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Re: Predicting Problems. Convex?

Having a safeguard mirror that was slight convex in one or both axis would distribute the light over an even larger area.

But the main problem would be the necessary area that would need safeguarding, it would include a lot of the tower structure as cables will be running all the way down the tower. This would significantly increase the weight and the wind resistance requiring a stronger tower. Sensitive parts near the designed 'light collection' point should though be protected.

There could also be a system that checks the main collector is getting the light level expected and set off an alarm if not, Also it could unfocus the beam if not corrected within an appropriate time scale.

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Re: Predicting Problems

Have you watched any Hollywood movies lately?

Actually, no. Last one was a Jordanian movie, and the one before that was Mønti Pythøn ik den Hølie Gräilen. Before that, I have no frigging idea, it was that long ago

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Archimedes would be proud

...so would Darwin. Shame they don't win an award this time around.

Not that I hate Google, or anything, you understand.... much...

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Our old enemy - the Sun!

(shakes fist at the sky) Grrr. Damn you!

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Coat

Re: Our old enemy - the Sun!

They've been borged by Oracle since some years; not that they are less of an enemy anyway.

The one with the pockets bulging with orange DEC RDB binders.

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Mirror misalignment

That some mirrors were misaligned is one thing, that cables were able to be exposed in the first place is another.

Couldn't they have put a barrier around the cables to ensure that a stray concentration would just hit concrete instead of something flammable ?

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Re: Mirror misalignment

It does appear there are some design issues which need to be worked out. This would probably explain why they are not achieving their supply commitments, that requires reliability over and above achieving 'capacity'.

It is a little concerning as they are not the first entry into this generation technology.

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Supply commitments?

Sure, 100,000 homes sounds dandy...until you realize that according to the 2010 Census, Los Angeles County has 12 million homes...by itself. And California is the largest state in the union population-wise AND has another major metropolis further north in San Francisco, where conditions for renewable power generation are less ideal (at least Los Angeles is close to a desert).

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Re: Supply commitments?

"it's designed to deliver enough power for 140,000 homes,"

When an article says "power for 'x' homes", it means it makes 'x' times 3kW or so. (in this case, 2.8kW) This power will not power the heating system, so the house's heating needs to be 'powered' some other way.

This whole sorry tale makes you realise what a good thing nuclear power is, safely producing vast amounts of energy and completely unaffected by "clouds, jet contrails and weather".

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/nov/17/huge-solar-plant-lags-early-production/

http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/09/14/why-the-safest-form-of-power-is-also-the-most-fear.aspx

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Re: Supply commitments?

This is very true, and I hate to say the uncomfortable truth, but Solar is just a "Flash in the Pan"... it is never going to deliver the base load power the cities such as LA need 100% of the time, and not when the Sun happens to be shining. Further if we wanted a 1000 MW Solar Power station now, it would take up 17 sq miles [http://www.nuscalepower.com/why-smr/environmental-footprint]. Wind farms are worse. The experience of Germany in closing their nuclear reactors and attempting to replace them with renewables, has meant Germany has turned to Cola fired power stations to take up the slack! The uncomfortable truth for the Modern day greenies, is Nuclear is the only energy technology that can deliver now! [PS.. I am not in anyway associated with the Nuclear Power Industry...]

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Re: Supply commitments?

Here is the future of renewable energy... http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/germanys-green-energy-destabilizing-electric-grids/ !

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hmv

Re: Supply commitments?

Cola fired? I know it's just a typo, but it's a good one :)

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WTF?

Re: Supply commitments?

"The uncomfortable truth for the Modern day greenies"

Some of them are breaking ranks!

http://www.monbiot.com/category/nuclear/

The "A waste of waste" article is a good read.

p.s. @HMV, Coke would work!

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Re: Supply commitments?

>Cola fired?

It's the surreal thing.

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Re: Supply commitments?

"When an article says "power for 'x' homes", it means it makes 'x' times 3kW or so. (in this case, 2.8kW) This power will not power the heating system, so the house's heating needs to be 'powered' some other way."

For a place like LA County, it's the cooling, and for LA County that's saying something since they have pretty intense cooling needs: torrid climate, frequent heat waves, on the coast so it's moist heat that can't be sweated off easily, AND it's in a thermal inversion zone that traps the heat at ground level, keeping it from rising out of the way and allowing sea breezes from the Pacific to cool things down.

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Re: Supply commitments? Cooling?

Well they have gas fridges so why the hell not solar powered aircon? You could use the mirrors to shield the property too!

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Coat

Re: Supply commitments?

Maybe they are going back to fizzion power?

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Re: Supply commitments?

Even a worst-case accident in a solar power plant will not leave the surrounding are contaminated for centuries.

But actually I pretty much agree about nuclear power. In *competent hands* modern nuclear power plants are quite safe. The problem is, running them really requires a culture with a strict work ethic, and fanatical focus on quality. And don't build them in tectonically unstable places, or next to a tsunami-ridden ocean...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Supply commitments?

This sorry tale is a sorry tale of a power station reducing output due to an accident. Nuclear power stations' large capacity means that there is a major challenge when they have an accident. And if the accident is bad, well, that's a bit worse than everybody having to stay clear for half an hour.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Supply commitments?

For a place like LA County, it's the cooling, and for LA County that's saying something since they have pretty intense cooling needs: torrid climate, frequent heat waves, on the coast so it's moist heat that can't be sweated off easily, AND it's in a thermal inversion zone that traps the heat at ground level, keeping it from rising out of the way and allowing sea breezes from the Pacific to cool things down.

Ban aircon. People will quickly move somewhere more sensible.

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Re: Supply commitments?

They would get a Jolt out of that!

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Re: Supply commitments?

For a place like LA County, it's the cooling, and for LA County that's saying something since they have pretty intense cooling needs:

Maybe the smartest move is to move LA? If the planet is heating up for whatever reason, insisting on living in increasingly inhospitable environments makes no sense.

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Re: Supply commitments?

"Maybe the smartest move is to move LA?"

That'd get my vote... The Alaskan Riviera should do very nicely.

BTW: The Toasters - Weekend In LA

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Re: Supply commitments?

"But actually I pretty much agree about nuclear power. In *competent hands* modern nuclear power plants are quite safe."

Who would those competent hands be? Not the Americans, not the Japanese, not the Russians and not the British, Swiss, Germans or French. Or are we defining "modern" as "since the last known flawed design"?

Nuclear power might be the answer and the risk appropriate but it flys against all the evidence to call it safe.

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Re: Supply commitments?

There have really been just two disasters with catastrophic effects, Chernobyl and Fukushima, both in quite old plants. Oh, and one rather inconsequential one, Three mile island, which killed nobody. New plants really are inherently safer, a a response to concerns raised by the problems. At least in Chernobyl the safety culture seems to have been questionable. Experimenting on a live reactor so that safety systems are intentionally disabled?! At least nobody will try a that again. Fukushima was the victim of a natural disaster, but the plant was not sufficiently prepared for the double whammy of an earthquake and tsunami, in a part of the world where such are known to occur. Maybe we just should not put nuclear power plants in earthquake-prone regions.

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Mushroom

Closing nuclear in favour of coal..

Is beyond retarded.

For a start, if it's radioactive waste you're concerned about, then the stuff that comes out of coal stacks is actually very radioactive as well, possibly dirtier than nuclear waste. Per GWh, I expect it's even worse for coal.

That's not even counting all the other nasties that come out of burning coal (carcinogenic nanoparticles, exotic hydrocarbons, sulphur, never mind the CO2) and the kind of coal that Germany has (lignite) is the worst of the worst for all of these.

So let's all build Biomass power plants & burn trees imported on from South America on Diesel boats. That sounds like a better idea Eh?

Seriously though, the real trouble with nuclear is that nobody will define a "safe limit" for radiation. (A sensible level might be the background levels in naturally high-background areas such as Cornwall, where people have thrived for centuries) (cue Cornish jokes). Instead, we have "ALARA" and the "Linear No-Threshold Model" which make the assumption that any release of radioactivity, however small (even 100s of times below the background level) is going to harm *something*, and that ANY measure to reduce it, however expensive, is *legally* mandated. This only applies to the "nuclear" sector of course, and if the fossil fuels sector were held to the same standard then they would be just as expensive as Nuclear.

I find it odd that people are more afraid of "safe" things going wrong than "unsafe" things operating normally (i.e. killing people every day). "So&So was killed in a plane crash? OMG WTF I WILL NEVER FLY AGAIN!!!1" "So&So died in a car accident? MEH! Cars Do That."

I can only assume it's a "fear of the unknown" thing, and that until the general population become nuclear physicists, everyone who isn't will always fear this invisible yet eminently detectable poison.

The nice thing about nuclear power is that all the waste is nicely contained in one place, which makes it easy to clean up (contrast to fossil fuels where its spread all over the flipping atmosphere). And the nice thing about radioactive waste is that it is detectable from a mile off, making it easy to spot. But therefore a nightmare for OCD sufferers perhaps?

** DISCLAIMER: I DO work in the nuclear sector, although not in Fission Power. I work on Remote Handling robots that clean up all the Sperm Germs that everyone is so afraid of **

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Devil

Re: Supply commitments?

> There have really been just two disasters with catastrophic effects, Chernobyl and Fukushima

Chernobyl was a catastrophe. Fukushima was a catastrophe in terms of the PR it caused (e.g. Frau Merkel's knee-jerk) but in every other sense I think it was a triumph for nuclear safety.

Like you say it was an old design and was not built to withstand a double fault (modern nuclear plants & their safety systems are built to "SIL 4", which requires being able to cope with and immediately diagnose two simultaneous independent faults - more onerous than you might imagine..)

Fukushima was smashed by a "natural" tsunami that killed 10,000s, and made 100,000s homeless. In spite of this the nuclear plant itself has killed nobody. Not one of the "Fukushima 50" who went in to stabilise the plant expecting to die, has died yet. But we have almost forgotten about the tsunami.

Yet people are killed in ordinary "industrial accidents" every day, especially in the "third world", although three were killed (IN BRITAIN!!) demolishing an old coal plant down the road from me at Didcot a few months ago.

When people tell me that Chernobyl or even Fukushima were the worst industrial disasters mankind has known, I like to remind them of Bhopal.

But I suppose that happened in a part of the world we don't care about. :@

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Re: Supply commitments?

Maybe the smartest move is to move LA?

San Andreas could help there.

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Van

Re: Supply commitments?

Funny how these 'competent hands' can not for the life of them provide an accurate/honest cost for de-commissioning a nuclear site (the last ones increased 20- fold) or an accurate time-scale, again, obscenely longer than predicated.

All we know is that our Grandchildren will likely be heavily taxed to pay for it. These are the real reasons for Nuclear hesitancy, we simply don't have the money to put aside. Also, if there should be a population implosion, not only will the extra energy not be needed, there wont be enough people left to tax. Last one out hit the 'off' button, then hope for the best.

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