Lights Go Out at Massively Taxpayer-Subsidized Solar Power Tower

Tonopah, Nevada, is home to one of the most ambitious alternative energy projects ever subsidized by the U.S. government. Due to its unique clean-energy technology, the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project was designed to produce up to 1 megawatt of electricity generate power even when the sun isn’t shining.

The solar plant had 10,347 mirrored panels, called heliostats, each about 1,245 square feet in size (or about 35 feet square), spread over a two-mile-wide circular area in the Nevada desert. Each panel was aimed at the top of a 640-feet tall tower, where reflected light and heat from the sun would be concentrated to generate temperatures high enough to melt 70 million pounds of salt. The molten salt would then then be circulated in the tower to produce steam, which was supposed to generate up to 110 megawatts of electricity at full capacity, enough to furnish power to 75,000 homes during peak periods.

Unfortunately, the plant never came anywhere close to that level of power output during its years of operation, from November 2015 to April 2019, before it was shut down following the catastrophic failure of its molten salt containment technology. It was expected to generate an average of more than 40,000 megawatt-hours of energy each month, but never achieved that level of power output during its operating life.

Worse, because the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project benefited from $737 million in loan guarantees provided by the Department of Energy, it represents one of the largest failures of a government energy program, surpassing even the Solyndra fiasco. The project’s powerful political backers, it’s worth noting, managed to secure approval for the power plant just one week before the Obama administration’s green energy federal loan program expired in September 2011.

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project was also an environmental menace. During its operation, the mirrors generated enough heat to cause birds attracted to the glow of the power generating tower to burst into flames while in flight.

While it operated, the plant was phenomenally expensive. According to the non-profit Institute for Energy Research, the cost to generate power at the facility exceeded $132 per megawatt-hour, nearly four times the cost of electricity from an average fossil fuel power plant.

No wonder then that NV Energy, the primary utility customer for power generated by the plant, threw in the towel in October 2019 and terminated its contract with the project because it had “failed to produce the requisite energy levels required.”

Bloomberg Businessweek describes the current state of the project, which is now mired in litigation:

Almost no one associated with Crescent Dunes will talk about it anymore. That includes the once-friendly politicians and regulators, the financiers, and the executives who’ve been in place during its failure. (SolarReserve didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, and a lawyer representing the company said he wasn’t authorized to comment.) One exception is Bill Gould, a SolarReserve co-founder who retired as its chief technology officer last year. He blames the contractor. “It was a tragedy of mismanagement,” he says. Spanish company ACS Cobra, he says, delayed necessary work on Crescent Dunes and designed a salt tank that leaked, crippling the plant. SolarReserve similarly blamed ACS Cobra in its Delaware suit but doesn’t appear to have filed any legal claims against the contractor. Grupo Cobra, ACS Cobra’s parent company, didn’t respond to requests for comment....

A buyer might try to bring Crescent Dunes back on line, or its owner could sell it for parts. For now, the plant is mostly a punchline in a part of Nevada that’s seen its share of booms and busts. The nearest town, Tonopah, was the site of a silver rush in the early 1900s. It’s now home to 2,400 people, a motley collection of saloons and casinos, a mining museum, and the Clown Motel, which calls itself “America’s scariest motel” because it’s close to a cemetery and filled with creepy red-nosed tchotchkes. The solar plant’s workers don’t boost business like they used to, says Linda Taylor, the motel’s manager. “It took our money,” she says of the giant mirror matrix up the road. “It’s dead. But real pretty, though. You can see it for miles.”

For their $737 million contribution, shouldn’t U.S. taxpayers have something more than a useless public art display in the middle of the Nevada desert?

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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