Ivanpah’s Land Footprint

World's Largest Thermal Project Requires 92 Times the Acreage of Babcock & Wilcox "Twin Pack"

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The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System represents the convergence of excellent resources, electricity network and gas connections, and load – making it a winner for the location of big solar. But even with optimal resources, the thermal project is enormous, requiring 3,500 acres. Consider that a “twin pack” of Babcock & Wilcox small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) only needs 38 acres. The SMR is also capable of producing 242 times the electricity of Ivanpah per unit land. Ivanpah’s land use has had its consequences, too, as the solar project spent more than $56 million relocating desert tortoises for their protection with mixed results. Compared to Ivanpah, then, nuclear is the definition of ‘small is beautiful.’

March 13, 2014 | Ben Heard,

The 392 MW, $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS) has just started delivering electricity. It does not include any component of energy storage. It is expected to deliver a high (for solar anyway) capacity factor of 31.4 percent. That's thanks to a "remarkably intense solar resource of 2,717 kWh/m2/yr" combined with the dual-axis tracking.

As the map below shows, the areas of deepest red shading are blessed with this remarkably intense level of solar radiation. That's a huge area of land, and the available energy must be mind-bendingly large.

However, the map below shows us this non-portable resource is mostly distant from large loads. Unless we use electricity close to where we generate it, we are stuck with big losses through big transmission infrastructure. These are typically neither cheap, nor popular. This is a traditional criticism of the model of large centralized electricity generation dominated by fossil fuels and nuclear. It applies equally well to large solar. 

It turns out Ivanpah was a canny location for SEGS. With proximity to the large loads of California, connection also did not require a brand new line, just the politically, socially, and environmentally simpler upgrade of existing infrastructure at a cost of $446 million to $484 million. Ivanpah also provided access to natural gas connection just 0.5 miles away for the gas back up it requires. Ivanpah represents a convergence of excellent resources, electricity network connection, gas connection, and load. That’s consistent with an economically rational process where the optimal sites are exploited earliest. Ivanpah was a dead-set winner for location of large solar.

Even with optimal resource, however, the system is absolutely enormous, with a quoted area of 3,500 acres. 

If this is the future of clean energy, it's safe to say environmentalism has comprehensively rejected "small is beautiful.”

We can get the same amount of electricity with greater reliability, from a much smaller area. Consider the land requirements for the equivalent level of electricity generation for small modular reactors (SMR). I tested this by considering a "twin pack" of Babcock and Wilcox Generation mPower 180 MWe SMRs for a total of 360 MWe, close to the rated capacity of SEGS. This front-running SMR design is currently working through the licensing process in the US. An example design is shown below and discussed in more detail here.

The site footprint for this "Twin Pack" is 38 acres. That, combined with the far higher capacity factor, leads to a remarkable cascade of numbers, shown in the table below.

The small nuclear is capable of producing 242 times the electricity per unit land. Small nuclear is as staggering in scale as large solar, just for the opposite reason.

Some might say, well, who cares? We have the land, let's use it.

There is another criterion that matters when selecting sites for large solar: alternative uses of the land, including biodiversity.

In developing SEGS, the project proponent discovered the place was, literally, crawling with endangered reptiles, including the desert tortoise. The project proponent spent more than $56 million relocating the reptiles for their protection with mixed results. Sadly, it seems the lure of raw resource, utility connections, and proximity to load meant endangered species never really stood a chance. The company version of proceedings reads like genuinely good people within a very large company that can only ever put on a positive spin. The truth seems clear: the fauna would have been best served without the disturbance. That we are speaking of solar rather than fossil or uranium energy really does not matter.

As we further developments in both the most dense and most diffuse sources of energy available to us, extraordinary comparisons will arise. They will present us with profoundly different directions for humanity in the 21st century. There is a popular supposition that solar developments rule out the need for nuclear power in a rapidly developing world that remains dominated by fossil fuels. That is insupportable. It is every bit the "hallucinatory delusion" that Shellenberger says it is in Robert Stone's Pandora's Promise.

Asking whether we want large solar is an entirely moot question. We have it, we are going to get more of it and to the extent it helps us live more sustainably, so much the better. But if we environmentalists presume to advocate treading lightly on an earth that will be home to 10 billion deserving souls, then it is dense energy, not dilute energy that really shows us a way forward. Maybe small is beautiful after all.

 

Ben Heard is the director of Decarbonise SA, dedicated to moving South Australia to zero greenhouse gas emissions. Like what you see here? Please subscribe to the blog, Like Decarbonise SA on Facebook and follow @BenThinkClimate on Twitter. Read more about the potential for nuclear power in Australia at Zero Carbon Options 


Comments

    • Robert,

      Embedded as I now am in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Adelaide, I would be delighted to provide the table in SI units smile. Look out for it soon.

      Thanks for commenting.

      By Ben Heard on 2014 03 13

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    • One point to add. Power density affects the amount of physical plant to produce 1 steady GW. However, energy density is also a vital metric.  Here, this determines the quantity of fuel and waste per GW-year of energy delivered.  Nuclear wins even more on this count.  With nuclear fission releasing 200MeV per atom and oxidation of 1 carbon atom releasing 4eV, nuclear fuels carry a 50,000,000:1 advantage in terms of fuel consumption and waste production. 

      Note: this applies equally well to renewables since, although the fuel is renewable and “free”, the energy cost of the infrastructure build required, and ongoing maintenance of same, to collect and upgrade diffuse energy flows in such gargantuan amounts is definitely NOT free.

      By Steve Foster on 2014 05 17

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  • How sad that when the chips are down and it becomes a challenge between rare wildlife and a dogmatic pursuit of expensive marginal energy the dogma comes first and the wildlife - and a very large area of their habitat can go to hell. It doesn’t seem to matter that there are better and less intrusive solutions. The green dogma comes first.

    SMR’s are just one of a number of potential high energy-density nuclear solutions to our problems. But while the green dreamers blindly continue to pursue their fantasy, irrespective of the consequences for the environment or the ineffectiveness of their technology, I fear all we will actually get is more coal sweetened with a few token marginal plants like Ivanpah.

    By Billothewisp on 2014 03 13

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    • Yes, when we become obsessed with a narrow definition of “clean energy” and throw sustainability to the wind, we can deliver some pretty poor outcomes.

      I put a lot of responsibility on my own core discipline of sustainability for failing to develop a sufficiently robust framework and culture. Sustainability as a discipline barely makes a squeak about these issues. Probably out of fear of criticising supposed allies.

      By Ben Heard on 2014 03 13

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  • Unless my scientific notation skills are totally rotten, Ivanpah’s power density is about 8.7 watts per square meter. Better than wind energy at 1 W/m2, but still nothing close to nuclear.
    Again, if my calculations are right, then the power density of the B&W mPower should be about 2,105 W/m2. That seems reasonable as the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station in California, assuming a 90 percent capacity factor, has a power density of about 2,250 W/m2.
    Looking forward to your numbers, Ben…

    By Robert Bryce on 2014 03 13

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  • Nice piece. Are you accounting for mining the uranium in your calculations of needed area? This is part of the picture too, and not unimportant. My gut says that nuclear power is still a lot more energy dense than solar. Here’s a pic of a uranium mine in Canada:
    http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v5/n2/fig_tab/ngeo1386_F1.html

    In my presentation, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Megawatt: Hydrofracking as a Gateway Drug to Energy Literacy” (slides here: http://bit.ly/MarcellusGateway), I compare other ways of generating electricity to the 6.3 GW Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario. I live just a few miles from the largest solar array in Upstate New York, the University of Buffalo’s 750 KW Solar Strand. It’s about as wide as a four lane highway and 1/4 of a mile long. If you wanted to keep it the same width, but extend it so that it has the same capacity as the Bruce power plant, you’d need to extend it from Buffalo to Phoenix. Oy.

    By Don Duggan-Haas on 2014 03 13

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    • Hi Don,

      The analysis shown above is not full lifecycle, it is only the site of generation. I am interested to expand this to full lifecycle in the interests of potential journal publication in future.

      I did a quick analysis prior to publishing this piece to look into the mining specifically. Of the three operating mines in Australia I went with Ranger. Olympic Dam is a poly-metallic ore with uranium as the tertiary product; very hard to assign impact. The Beverley mine is in-situ recovery method… scarcely an impact at all and super easy to rehabilitate. Ranger is open cut, uranium only, so perfect.

      Taking a very generous boundary on Google Earth and using the recent year of production figures, it’s about 650 times more productive for electricity than SEGS. So add 1/650 to the 1/242 above. Not a big deal. To be more definitive I need to repeat that for an average of the production figures for perhaps the past 10 years, and repeat the process for a few similar mines globally. It seems clear the mining is a minor addition only when normalised for output of fuel.

      You might be interested in this piece I wrote after visiting the Beverley ISR mine a couple of years back. http://decarbonisesa.com/2012/01/25/the-folly-of-making-perfection-the-enemy-of-excellence-a-visit-to-beverley-uranium-mine/

      Thanks for commenting.

      By Ben Heard on 2014 03 13

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    • What a cool presentation! Jealous. Thanks, will sit with it properly over the weekend.

      By Ben Heard on 2014 03 13

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    • Are you accounting for mining the uranium in your calculations of needed area?.

      Good point, but then you would also need to account for the mining required for all of that concrete, glass, and metal for the solar plant.

      Certainly, a proposed uranium mine that would do as much ecological damage as this solar plant did should not be allowed.

      By Russ Finley on 2014 03 18

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  • Thanks! I’ll be taking a closer look at your stuff over the weekend as well!

    By Don Duggan-Haas on 2014 03 13

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  • Excellent article about the perils of massive installations in pristine ecosystems (viz. dams on rivers, waste treatment plants, fracking operations, the occasion Tar/Oil Sands operation. What’s missing are: a) comparison of project-related waste streams and their management over time; b) analysis of actual and potential human health effects; c) life-time cost analyses of the project and its comparator; and d) comparison to a distributive, non-disruptive, community-embedded solar energy approach, which is a more directly aligned alternative.

    Comparing strains of apples is perhaps better than comparing apples to oranges.

    By Warren Bell on 2014 03 14

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    • I agree, it is challenging to find a nuclear design that promises 31.4% capacity factor, promises power only in daylight hours, and is constrained in location on the basis of climate.

      However if you would like a multi-criteria comparison of a wind and solar hybrid solution and a nuclear solution that are set the same generation and reliability challenge please read Zero Carbon Options, available as a free download http://www.zerocarbonoptions.com

      By Ben Heard on 2014 03 14

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    • ...analysis of actual and potential human health effects.

      Nuclear energy would win in each of your categories, particularly in the health effects per unit energy produced. The number of people falling off roofs to install and maintain solar is not trivial ; )

      By Russ Finley on 2014 03 18

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  • What’s the land footprint for nuclear power plants when you include the land usage around Fukushima?

    Ask yourself - if for some reason you, your family, and your future generations, HAD TO LIVE next to an electric generation power plant, would you rather live by a natural gas plant, a coal plant, a nuclear plant, a wind farm, or a solar farm (maybe solar PV) - which would it be?

    By Richard H on 2014 03 17

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    • What capacity? That makes a huge difference, and is kind of the point. With over seven billion people on the planet, energy production ends up in a lot of different peoples’ backyards.

      Think in terms of an island where all energy, food, water and shelter needs to come from. You’ve only got so much land to do everything that needs to be done to sustain society - as is the case with our planet. It is true that sunlight comes in from outside of our little island, but capturing it and turning it into the kinds of energies that power our society takes space and other resources. 

      That makes Richard’s simple sounding question quite a bit more complex.

      It also points to something I should have said in my earlier comments - the only free megawatt is the one you don’t use. We don’t pay enough to the ways in which we can use lots less energy.

      By Don Duggan-Haas on 2014 03 17

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    • As 23000 people die every year in Europe from coal via air pollution (see: Guardian here http://bit.ly/1eLOsFz )  and several thousand from from Gas, Diesel and Biomass,  I think most people would not morally wish to impose this pollution on either themselves or their neighbours.

      So that leaves nuclear wind and solar.

      Sadly though with wind or solar you still need (like Germany and Denmark) coal, lignite (dirty coal) and biomass to provide the Lions share of your power.

      Your wind and solar are neither energy dense enough nor reliable enough to ever provide more than a minor part of power generation. Wind farms or solar parks (especially if they displace nuclear) by default impose (on somebody) significant air pollution and so kill by proxy due to their ineffectiveness.

      Nothing is going to get better about this.

      There is a lot of waffle and fatuous feel good lies peddled about possible solutions to wind/solar intermittency but there is nothing even on the horizon that can get over the intermittency and energy density problems (without coal/gas that is).

      By nothing I mean nothing. Not smart grids, not Vanadium Redox batteries, not compressed air and not even hydro.

      Nothing.

      None of these technologies work on a large scale (the best is pumped hydro) but to suggest any or all, combined with wind/solar will ever lead to a large scale reduction in air pollution is wishful thinking at best or criminal negligence at worst.

      That leaves nuclear.

      Actually I have lived near a nuclear plant (approx 2 miles - and down wind! ) and would happily do so again. I would also be pleased if my children or grand children got jobs in the nuclear industry and/or lived near plants themselves. They are clean, unassuming and for their power generation capability, blend into the background (unlike wind farms or solar arrays)

      So with me it would be the nuclear plant every time.

      Your fear of Fukushima is over blown (as was the whole response to the accident). But even so, Fukushima was a 50 year old obsolete design that actually was slated for retirement several years earlier.

      Fearing new nuclear because of Fukushima is like fearing to fly on a 747 because of the Hindenburg disaster.

      By Billothewisp on 2014 03 17

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      • “Wind farms or solar parks (especially if they displace nuclear) by default impose (on somebody) significant air pollution and so kill by proxy due to their ineffectiveness”. 

        Not sure how this conclusion is reached that wind and solar cause significant air pollution???

        “Nothing is going to get better about this.”

        Don’t ever say never….. If past scientists and engineers would have had the attitude espoused here, I would image we never would have discovered nuclear power.  Now just think if we spent effort and money on wind, solar, storage, and efficiency in the amounts we have historically spend on nuclear energy what we could be accomplishing…...

        By the way, I think the real long term role of solar PV is distributed generation with some small amounts of distributed storage. The historical grid model has been base load and peakers, and people keep being concerned about “intermittancy” of wind and solar power sources.  But haven’t all loads always been intermittent?  If in the past we could live with intermittent loads, in the future, we could develop clever cost-effective technology to deal with intermittent sources.

        There is great potential in nuclear energy, but I think we should focus more on the nuclear energy that is 93 million miles away - the SUN - that provides our planet with 23,000 terawatt-years of energy every year!

        I know everything in life has risks, but I love flying!  However, I would just rather fly on 747s and new 787s and live with solar panels on my roof and a solar plant with storage next to me, than ride on a 747 with my family and future generations to live next to the Fukushima plant.

        By Richard H on 2014 03 17

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    • Ask yourself - if for some reason you, your family, and your future generations, HAD TO LIVE next to an electric generation power plant, would you rather live by a natural gas plant, a coal plant, a nuclear plant, a wind farm, or a solar farm (maybe solar PV) - which would it be?

      Unequivocally a nuclear plant.

      Asked about the inclusion of Fukushima exclusion zone elsewhere I replied as follows: Setting aside discussion of the actual vs. perceived impact to land from those accidents, my work is comparing new solar with new nuclear, and has used actual designs, their rated output and their reported land use for comparison. It’s not internally consistent to then to take impacts from a Japanese reactor designed in 1969 and Russian RMBK reactors built between 1970-77 and spread their impacts across the sector as though it is homogenous, and unchanging, right up to a US-designed SMR that is currently being licensed and will probably enter service around 2020.

      That’s not to dismiss the relevance of trying to create an inclusive boundary for these considerations; it’s something I am putting some thought to.

      By Ben Heard on 2014 03 18

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    • What’s the land footprint for nuclear power plants when you include the land usage around Fukushima?

      Ask yourself - if for some reason you, your family, and your future generations, HAD TO LIVE next to an electric generation power plant, would you rather live by a natural gas plant, a coal plant, a nuclear plant, a wind farm, or a solar farm (maybe solar PV) - which would it be?

      Roughly 430 square miles were temporarily evacuated for Fukushima. As of today, approximately 70% of that 430 square miles is safe again and most if not all of the remaining 129 square miles is expected to be safe again at some point in the next few years. In the United States alone, coal ash landfills and ponds cover 124 square miles.

      Calculate the amount of land needed per unit area and you find that nuclear wins by orders of magnitude, even it you include land lost to industry by the two nuclear incidents in the last half century.

      I would prefer to live next to a nuclear power plant, which are a pollution free economic godsend for any community they are located near.

      Read: http://biodiversivist.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-nuclear-energy-creates-thousands-of.html

      By Russ Finley on 2014 03 18

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  • This is my last comment on this thread or it all gets a bit troll like.
    I am sorry I was not clear enough. Solar and wind always need backup whether it is from coal, lignite, gas or biomass (just as in Germany today)
    The result is that your feel good solar/wind plant involves someone somewhere having to endure air pollution from the backup. De Facto.
    This is not the case with nuclear which does not need backup and so removes the need for coal (and associated air pollution) on a watt for watt basis.

    In fact though, as I mentioned, the fossil fuels are hardly a backup but actually make up the majority of generation simply because wind/solar is too dilute and unreliable. Solar/wind generate CO2 / air pollution by proxy when they cannot provide power.
    The simple and brutal data that backs this up is this:
    Germany CO2 from power generation 480 Kg/MWHr
    France CO2 from power generation 75 Kg/MWHr
    France (as I am sure you know) generate its electrical power by 75% nuclear.
    Of course I believe we should research all avenues. Including potential wind/solar development and/or power storage. But the sad truth is that today nothing is on the horizon that is likely to make even a small impact in the intermittency/storage problem. Promoting a flawed technology on the basis that “something will turn up” is not a good way to progress.
    I glad you like flying. So do I. The reason I chose a highly successful through somewhat aged design like the 747 when comparing to the Hindenberg disaster was that the time scale from the building of the Hindenberg (1936) and the building of the first 747 (1969) is actually less than between the building of Fukushima 1 and the current new nuclear designs such as SMR’s mentioned above. Just as in aeronautics where the Hindenberg and 747 show a massive advance, so technology also moves on in the nuclear industry.

    By Billothewisp on 2014 03 18

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  • I forget, how many SMRs are operating today in the US and around the world and what is their total installed capacity?  What is the current projection for the number of SMRs and their installed capacity by 2020?

    By Richard H on 2014 03 18

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  • I am surprised that there was not one mention of disposal of nuclear waste. As far as I am concerned that is my only reservation on using much more nuclear power. (I am in the shadow of Indian Point). From the space point of view it is not large, e.g. more compact than the ore from which it was derived. The disposal problem is currently unsolved (no generally agreed on safe solutions) and politically intractable (NIMB)..

    By Walter Daniels on 2014 05 18

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  • Available nuclear plants don’t have a significant land-use advantage over solar.
    Once-through nuclear fuel cycle requires uranium mining, milling, enrichment, and waste disposal (some with military-grade security).
    The LCA of Fthenakis and Kim (2009) (see following link) estimates nuclear at 120 sqm per GWh, which is excellent with respect to coal which tallies at 3-4 times more.
    But a solar plant over 60 years is at 164 sqm/GWh, not a difference to brag about when you account for the higher risks of the uranium fuel cycle, and for the placement flexibility of PV (the solar option includes a mix of land based PV, roof mounted PV, and CSP).
    Anyhow, the solar full cycle footprint is already smaller than coal, therefore, why all the fuss on this criterion?

    Yes, I acknowledge that a breeder reactor would be significantly more energy dense than solar. But Gen IV is not proven technology.
    If we want to dream of future tech, then I’ll point at concentrated hybrid PV/thermal with 50% efficiency, or PV that can be painted on buildings,  thus making the land-use issue irrelevant.

    I’m commenting only on the land-use issue which is the main focus of your post.
    The other points (variability, grid extension) are already discussed in Jacobson and Delucchi.
    I still have to find a paper that seriously challenges their WWS plan.
    Yes, it’s very difficult to eliminate fossil fuel dependency because of entrenched interests. The Cape Wind project shows this, without the Koch money there wouldn’t be a campaign against offshore wind.
    But the fossil fuel lobby will oppose a nuclear path as well!

    My opinion is that the BTI narrative is counterproductive.
    Pushing nuclear and attacking solar because of the insignificant energy density criterion obtains the following:
    1) you slow solar, making happy the fossil fuel lobby
    2) you slow Gen IV because this divisive and unfair narrative is going to augment opposition to nuclear.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032108001354

     

    By Luigi Moccia on 2014 05 19

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