The $2.2 billion DOE-funded Ivanpah solar thermal power plant delivers power for the first time:
From one perspective, things don’t look good. When you calculate the amount of power the plant is likely to produce over its lifetime, the cost per kilowatt-hour is likely to be much higher than for fossil-fuel power. It’s even likely to be higher than the cost of power from solar panels, thanks to the fast drop in solar-panel prices in recent years. If costs don’t come down — and decreasing the costs of mirrors and steam turbines is hard to do — solar thermal power might prove to be a dead end.
But solar thermal power has one chance at success. It’s the only form of solar that can run around the clock, even after the sun goes down (see “A Solution to Solar Power Intermittency”). This is possible because it’s relatively cheap to store heat produced during the day in the form of molten salt which can be used to make steam at night.
Solar thermal strikes me as a hedge or a back-up plan, not the go-to strategy for the next generation of power production.