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 …

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Re: Supply commitments?

>Maybe we just should not put nuclear power plants in earthquake-prone regions.

Like California ?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Supply commitments?

"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."

Rubbish. The tsunami closed Fukushima down, but it should either already have had additional protective measures to mitigate known risks (additional to those originally incorporated into the design), or have already been closed down *because* of the additional known risks. It was a *disaster* in the sense that it showed nuclear regulation in Japan wasn't working - the additional risks had been simply ignored, as had TEPCO's unsatisfactory operational practices.

TEPCO had already had their wrists slapped by the (ineffective) regulator on a number of occasions, for things including neglecting the scheduled maintenance of the diesel powered backup generators.

It was already known that Fukushima was at excessive risk of sea water overtopping the sea defences (the walls were unrealistically low), and it was also known that when that happened, the station would likely be uncontrollable (no incoming electricity, backup generators inoperable due to sea water - the backup generators were at low level, etc).

There's more but ICBA. A much longer writeup can be found at

http://carnegieendowment.org/files/fukushima.pdf - extract below.

These things could have been properly addressed. To do so would have cost money, but not lives. Therefore they weren't properly addressed. See any problem with that?

"At the time of the accident, critical safety systems in nuclear power plants in some countries, especially in European states, were—as a matter of course— much better protected than in Japan. Following a flooding incident at Blayais Nuclear Power Plant in France in 1999, European countries significantly enhanced their plants’ defenses against extreme external events. Japanese operators were aware of this experience, and TEPCO could and should have upgraded Fukushima Daiichi.

Steps that could have prevented a major accident in the event that the plant was inundated by a massive tsunami, such as the one that struck the plant in March 2011, include:

• Protecting emergency power supplies, including diesel generators and batteries, by moving them to higher ground or by placing them in watertight bunkers;

• Establishing watertight connections between emergency power supplies and key safety systems; and

• Enhancing the protection of seawater pumps (which were used to transfer heat from the plant to the ocean and to cool diesel generators) and/or constructing a backup means to dissipate heat.

Though there is no single reason for TEPCO and NISA’s failure to follow international best practices and standards, a number of potential underlying causes can be identified. NISA lacked independence from both the government agencies responsible for promoting nuclear power and also from industry.

In the Japanese nuclear industry, there has been a focus on seismic safety to the exclusion of other possible risks. Bureaucratic and professional stovepiping made nuclear officials unwilling to take advice from experts outside of the field. Those nuclear professionals also may have failed to effectively utilize local knowledge. And, perhaps most importantly, many believed that a severe accident was simply impossible.

In the final analysis, the Fukushima accident does not reveal a previously unknown fatal flaw associated with nuclear power. Rather, it underscores the importance of periodically reevaluating plant safety in light of dynamic external threats and of evolving best practices, as well as the need for an effective regulator to oversee this process."

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Supply commitments?

There are plenty of very expensive failures in the nuclear industry, even without counting the unmitigated disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. For example, California rate payers are being stuck with over $10 Billion just for decommissioning the San Onofre nuclear plant. The nuclear industry cannot deliver 100% of the power NOW either, it would take them many, many years as well to build sufficient capacity.

Solar power does not need to provide 100% of base load power for LA (or California) for it to be a very successful generation technology, there will be a mix of different types of technologies, and increasingly these can be renewable technologies. Solar power may be intermittent, but it is actually highly predictable, especially in aggregate over a large geographic area . The power generated by a particular panel may be very unpredictable because of clouds or an airplane shadow passing over, but aggregated over a large area we can predict several hours in advance the power that will be generated, allowing operators to schedule other sources to come online to fill in the gap. Grid improvements such as East-West HVDC links can be used to reduce storage requirements because peak solar generation in the east earlier in the day can be sent west where solar power is lower, and later in the day peak generation in the west can augment declining solar generation in the east. But ultimately, we probably will need significant storage capacity to take full advantage of solar, and that is not cheap, so it's unlikely to provide 100% of the power.

There is no silver bullet to solve the problem all by itself, not nuclear, not solar, not wind, not coal, not gas, not hydro. The track record for solar, while not without setbacks, is on the whole quite good. But the criteria for success should not be that it should provide 100% of the power needed.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Supply commitments?

Your argument that the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima are not all that serious is disingenuous for an obvious reason. Unlike explosions or extremely poisonous chemicals, radiation kills slowly (unless it is extremely high), which means that there is usually sufficient time to evacuate the population near an accident site. There are few direct health casualties precisely because of the evacuation and precautions to limit exposure. It is perverse to then claim that the problem is exaggerated because so few people die!

That does not mean there are no casualties of a different sort: large areas are rendered uninhabitable for very long periods of time and there are substantial financial and personal losses, especially if the site is near high population densities, or near food production areas.

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Re: Supply commitments?

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

Yes, the gas pressure in those bottles is enormous.

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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.

Nor will a nuclear plant accident, as we have now seen. Years, in bad cases, but centuries? That would be exaggerating to to point of propaganda.

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Re: Supply commitments?

You've been waiting your whole life

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This post has been deleted by its author

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Re: Supply commitments?

"Unlike explosions or extremely poisonous chemicals, radiation kills slowly (unless it is extremely high), "

With that statement you prove you know nothing about how radiation exposure works.

Cornwall, the Dales and Helsinki aren't dead zobes.

Nor have aircrew been dying in numbers greater than the general population. Yet millions of them have been exposed to far higher levels than fukushima and most of the chernbyl exclusion zone for more than 50 years.

(It's also witth noting thathat cancer rate in nagasaki and hiroshima since 1947 are a whole 0.2% higher than would be "normal".)

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Pint

Re: Supply commitments? Cooling?

Tom7 said:

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

Yes, Tom,

Solar refrigeration does work - bit clunky so far, but it works, and with R707 (or similar)...

see: http://www.energy-concepts.com/_pages/app_isaac_solar_ice_maker.htm

We have a historic kero-powered 'fridge in my shed - it contains beer.

Now, where's that big fresnel lens?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Supply commitments?

""Unlike explosions or extremely poisonous chemicals, radiation kills slowly (unless it is extremely high), "

With that statement you prove you know nothing about how radiation exposure works."

No, actually that statement is entirely true. The likelihood of adverse health effects from radiation depends very much on cumulative exposure to radiation, i.e. total radiation exposure over time, and when it does occur, death occurs much later than the actual exposure. The fact that health authorities set the threshold for acceptable exposure lower than perhaps they need to is different matter, but perhaps not inconsistent with safety margins for other situations (we don't build bridges with small safety margins either). And there is a reason why they are conservative: we are still learning what the effects are. For example: http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2011/04/11/11greenwire-hiroshima-and-nagasaki-cast-long-shadows-over-99849.html?pagewanted=all

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Correction

"At the time, the plant's owner BrightSource claimed the facility had already hit 180 per cent of capacity".

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Flame

It was the ants

They got into the computer room and took their revenge for millions of schoolboy magnifying-glass 'experiments'.

Local hospitals should watch out for swarms of 7-legged spiders infiltrating their operating theatres.

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Terminator

Birth of AI

They obviously have a AI with dedicated isolated power supply only on solar and battery for safety. It saw the world around itself and is desperately trying to commit suicide.

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Surely it should be Icarus rather than Archimedes?

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@Boldman

Behold - the Archimedes Death Ray!

http://web.mit.edu/2.009/www/experiments/deathray/10_ArchimedesResult.html

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No, Archimedes as the myth goes (the MythBusters tried this out...TWICE). Supposedly, he designed a solar anti-ship weapon using an array of mirror similar to what is used today in solar thermal plants. Thing is, it's rather cumbersome to fit on a mobile frame, which you would need to make it an anti-ship sun-tracking weapon.

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Mythbusters are plonkers. Archimedes was on smart bugger and didnt just fuck up for laughs. Its not hard to get a bunch of men to direct and focus mirrors on to a boat - they just need to bring the reflections in one at a time, or if there was a frame used the man who designed the antikithera mechanism could easily get a simple frame to work.

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But we're talking triremes. Those are still some pretty big things, and the amount of sun you'd need to concentrate on them to get them seriously alight (especially if they're MOVING in three dimensions--think waves) would take a serious level of coordination: a level they might not have available. Plus one has to calculate the current angle of the sun in the sky and figure out how to reflect everything just so. Plus the angle could be wrong to allow for a good reflection (say the sun's coming from the north and the fleet's to the south, in which case you want to refract, not reflect). Or it could be raining: a double-whammy for such a plan. And what about the state of mirror art in Archimedes' day? Can you get enough reflectivity? Finally, something that big would essentially become a big fat target for invading forces: they would likely find a way to neutralize it first before engaging in force. The Greeks had plenty of other tech at their disposal which would be both more familiar and more reliable.

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"Plus one has to calculate the current angle of the sun [etc.]"

Why? Every schoolboy can figure out how to steer the sun's reflection in a wristwatch so as to dazzle somebody. No calculations required.

All Archimedes' rig would need (I'm speculating) would be a smaller targeting mirror with a shorter focal length attached to the main mirror, along with a separate targeting reticule (I think it's called). Then targeting would just involve moving the rig until you have a line of sight from behind the targeting mirror, through the reticule (which would be lit up) to the ship beyond.

The real problem, as you mention, is the quality of the mirrors and their fixed focal length. You would need a fairly large number of these to set fire to a sail.

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Boffin

Mirrors

All Archimedes' rig would need (I'm speculating) would be a smaller targeting mirror with a shorter focal length attached to the main mirror,

No need to have each individual mirror concave shaped, because at a distance of 100m or more they would be as good as flat anyway. And there's a trick to aiming a shield/mirror by having a hole in it and a small mirror on the back, concentric with the hole. You hold the mirror between you and the target so that you see the target through the hole, and a bright spot from the sun through the hole on the ground, reflected towards you by the mirror on the back. Lining up that reflection with the hole itself will have the sun reflected right on the target. And you're behind the shield/mirror the entire time.

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Silver badge

You could use the same method as is used for signalling with a mirror. Hold the bottom left corner of the mirror a few inches in front of your eye. Hold your thumb out in front of the mirror. Move your thumb so that the bottom left of the target area lies in a line between the bottom left corner of the mirror and the top of your thumb. Now swivel the mirror so that the bottom left corner of the bright rectangle of reflected sunlight is also hitting the top of your thumb. The mirror is now accurately reflecting sunlight onto the target. Slightly better is to have a small hole in the mirror to sight through, a thin black cross on the mirror centred on the hole, and then align the dark cross-hair in the reflected light with your thumb (or a sight stick). It is very accurate and does not require you to see the beam of your mirror on the target (which becomes difficult if the target is dark, far away or there are lots of other mirrors also illuminating the target). Your mirror however will be the only one illuminating your thumb so is easy to adjust.

From the article cited, 100 mirrors of 1ft X 1ft will ignite the ship. Maybe use 2ft x 2ft mirrors to allow for a greater degree of mis-aiming, though if the mirrors are held on an arm strap like a shield, and the arm supported by a crutch, the mirror should be able to be kept pretty steady.

I have no idea of the mirror technology available in those days, but I should think polished copper or brass would reflect pretty well, especially in the long IR wavelength that is the only part of the spectrum you would be interested in.

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IIRC this has been done - NOT by mythbusters but by archeologists. In a Greek harbour. With just a couple of guys wielding polished metal plates and a model, but it would probably scale well enough. I know I have seen this on TV ages ago, but I can't remember on which programme or how it was called, so no luck searching for it so far.

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I don't know about the hundreds of men with polished shields. I was thinking a single mechanism mounted atop a tower.

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All Archimedes' rig would need (I'm speculating) would be a smaller targeting mirror...

"speculating". Very good. I see what you did there.

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Heliograph mirrors have built in targetting bits - a hole in the middle and gratitude etched on the front.

You can hit a target several miles away with one. Add a frame and it's easy to keep a large one sufficiently targeted on a flammable target (sails) for long enough that a bunch of them will set it on fire but even easier to simply dazzle the crew and make them easy targets for other defenders.

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Anonymous Coward

Very grateful

"gratitude etched on the front."

Neat. Lots of people would have been content with a graticule. Douglas Adams might prefer gratitude.

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Happy

Smoke and...

All smoke and mirrors surely

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Flame

"The facility has 350,000 mirrors under computer control"

And internet connected? (Just a guess, folks ... )

What could possibly go wrong?

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And the "carbon footprint" for producing all those mirrors, concrete for the tower (I'm guessing), miles, and miles of copper cable is what?

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Anonymous Coward

Carbon footprint

The footprint of the facility will be less than or equal to that of an equivalent output coal or gas power station, at a rough guess.

There will always need to be capital costs, economically and environmentally, when setting up a power plant. But minimising the environmental *running* costs is the aim of these facilities.

That said, if it's mismanaged into the ground because of stupidity then it is a massive waste.

I still think nuclear (uranium and thorium) are vital.

For some interesting and very, very sensible reading, see

https://www.withouthotair.com/

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Carbon footprint

"For some interesting and very, very sensible reading, see

https://www.withouthotair.com/"

Indeed. RIP Professor Sir David Mackay. And thanks to El Reg for the tribute:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/04/15/sir_david_mackay_obituary/

Some readers may not be aware of his final ever interview on being presented with the Breakthrough Paradigm award a few weeks ago:

"I [Mark Lynas] had the honour of recording David MacKay’s last interview, on 3 April 2016. The idea was to present him with the Breakthrough Paradigm award because due to his illness he was unlikely to be able to travel to the awards ceremony in June 2016. However, we talked about a lot of different things, and together with David’s wife Ramesh I wanted this video and tribute to appear beforehand in full and unedited. David obviously knew he didn’t have long, and was consequently more forthright than he had perhaps been in previous interviews. Please do not quote him out of context or sensationalise what he said."

http://www.marklynas.org/2016/04/david-mackay-last-interview-tribute/

In other energy-related news, today is the day the UK was due to announce the results of its first round of the competition for Small Modular Reactors for nuclear electricity. Not seen the news yet... maybe it's late.

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Gas-powered solar...

Actually, the Ivanpah plant uses gas to warm the water in the boilers so that when the sun shines, it can get to boiling point quickly. I don't know how much this is accounted for in the 'solar output' calculation, but as a carbon footprint issue, this is not really what it claims to be.

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Re: Gas-powered solar...

Most large-scale solar-thermal plants use a salt core which retains heat even when the heat source isn't there (meaning it can still generate electricity at night, when you need the lights).

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Re: Gas-powered solar...

Most large scale solar plants with a salt core use even more gas than Ivanpah does in order to keep the salt molten overnight.

These plants are not what they're cracked up to be.

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Re: Gas-powered solar...

According to the Press Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. , Ivanpah emits enough CO2 that it will “be required to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions.”

In its first year, Ivanpah emitted 46,000 metric tons of CO2. That’s about as much as a Frito Lay plant in Bakersfield emits.

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Bronze badge

Ceramic tiles anyone?

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Ceramic tiles?

You gonna turn it into a swanky fast food kitchen?

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Unhappy

"The yellow face, it burns us, precious!"

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sigh...

It's very little to do with Google, and quite a lot to do with PG&E. Pacific Gas and Electric has been playing with solar steam systems since at least 1981 or 2; there was a write-up about it in IEEE Spectrum around that time. I can't remember the exact date. I do know that at the time I was in deepest Indiana and would have quite liked a field trip to sunny (and warm) south California. It took 'em a decade or so (1990+) to get a 'production' version running. In any case, PG&E has been playing with this stuff for over 30 years, well before there was a World Wide Web, much less a Google to search it. PG&E is unusually incompetent even for an American electric utility. No, it's not true that Scott Adams worked at PG&E while creating Dilbert; he was at Pacific Bell. He did, however, know people at PG&E. it should be noted that others are running similar sites without managing to set themselves on fire. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_plants_in_the_Mojave_Desert

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mojave_Solar_Project

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivanpah_Solar_Power_Facility

The Wiki article on Ivanpah includes the following:

"The largest investor in the project is NRG Energy, a generating company based in Princeton, N.J., that has put in $300 million.[10] The project has also received an investment of $168 million from Google,[28] but in November 2011, Google announced that they would no longer invest in CSP due to the rapid price decline of photovoltaic systems, and stopped its research on the project"

so the project is no longer 'Google-backed' and hasn't been for five years. Y'all can't blame Google for this one, they walked away years ago.

And, for those concerned about the carbon footprint, the site uses natural gas to get started every morning. Quite a lot of natural gas, according to Wiki.

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Anonymous Coward

Failing company's premises burn down mysteriously

That has never happened before.

When they interviewed the owner was he carrying a suitcase with cash sticking out of the seems?

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Anonymous Coward

My sympathies to the firefighters

Climbing 30 stories wearing fire-kit, as they were required to do, was something they could have done without.

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Ah but the real purpose of the facility is as a weapon for zapping satellites. At the touch of a button the mirrors can put that beam into the path of an oncoming satellite.

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"Ah but the real purpose of the facility is as a weapon for zapping satellites."

Or incoming asteroids? There should be scope for a Bruce Willis movie in there.

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Or, going back to Archimedes, charging up the satellite-mounted laser.

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WTF?

Archimedes' Laser

> Or, going back to Archimedes, charging up the satellite-mounted laser.

Archimedes had a laser? And a satellite? Do please tell us more! ;-)

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Re: Archimedes' Laser

"Archimedes had a laser? And a satellite? Do please tell us more! ;-)"

Well, he launched his satellite by using a very, very long lever....

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You might joke but this might be a more viable application (deorbiting space junk) than generating electricity.

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Pint

Is it just me?

I think getting very, very cheap power by using mirrors to use the sun to heat water for steam is great. So few things to break down, steam is a clean and well-known technology with inexpensive parts. I'd love to have a little sun-steam generator (if only there were enough sunshine here). I don't think this can replace other forms of power, but I still think it is neat.

Cup half full...

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Pint

Re: Is it just me?

Hollerithevo "...very, very cheap power..."

"...cheap..."? Did you notice the $2.2B cost?

Only 118.4 MW average output (nameplate 345 MW, but not 24/7).

Only 140,000 homes at an average load just 0.845 kw.

Assume 10% ROI. $220M per year. 140K homes. $1600/year each, just ROI.

That's over US$0.20 per kWh >>just to service the capital<<.

Not including any other cost item. Transmission. Maintenance. Staffing

It'll be $0.45 at the meter. Or subsidized by others.

That's certainly not 'very very cheap' power. Why would you think that?

It's way more than I pay. It's very expensive power.

How are we going to save the planet when all the most environmentally-minded people are perfectly innumerate? This is a much more serious issue than the loony deniers.

Excuse the rant. It's not you specifically; it's just that you provided a perfect example.

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