We’ll know it when we see it

Solar Panels
Solar panels outside of the practice facility of the University of Wyoming Cowboys in Laramie, Wyoming. (Author’s collection)

Solar energy generation just continues to fail to live up to expectations, even though it has been around and under continuous development for decades. The latest comes from Ivanpah Solar Power Facility – the world’s largest solar thermal power facility. Ivanpah is much more than your generic collection of solar panels. It employs a sophisticated system of mirrors and “power towers” that create steam, which is then used to generate electricity. This solar-thermal technology is supposed to help increase the total amount of energy generated.

Back in 2010, when construction started and the U.S. department of energy granted the project a $1.6 billion loan guarantee, the plant was intended to generate over 1 million megawatt-hours of electricity a year. Now that it is fully operational, the plant is generating less than half that amount. Yet again, solar technology has fallen short.

The Wall Street Journal reports that broken equipment, less sun than expected, lack of familiarity with the new thermal technology, and a significant miscalculation in the amount of steam that the power plant needs to run have all contributed to this disappointment. The plant needs more than 4 hours worth of help from natural gas just to start running each morning.

We have seen missed expectations from solar energy for at least four decades. Back in the 1970s, solar panels held so much promise that even the Saudis invested in Exxon’s solar panel technology with hopes that they could run their oil operations in the remote desert. Yes, the Saudis wanted to use solar technology to power their carbon fuel extraction operations. But it failed. And so did Solyndra. Even the smalltime projects that put solar panels on the roofs of businesses and homes are failing to generate the amount of electricity they promised.

There is a point to this, though, beyond the negative:

Someday, solar energy will revolutionize the energy industry. Eventually it will, undoubtedly. Someday, someone will innovate technology that vastly improves the capture of solar energy, and maybe someone else will vastly improve the storage of that energy. And we will all know, because the combination of those two innovations will be truly revolutionary. It will change our world, and we will know about it. Until that day, though, don’t hold your breath for the new big company or the new big idea. When the real thing comes, we’ll know.