8-month outage ends at solar plant near Tonopah

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, 15 miles northwest of Tonopah, is fully online and generating electricity for the first time in more than eight months, officials said.

Mark Severts, communications director for NV Energy, the sole customer of Crescent Dunes, confirmed that NV Energy began receiving energy from Crescent Dunes on July 12 for the first time since the facility was shut down for repairs and maintenance in late October 2016.

“The project lived up to one of its most important benefits to our customers – as it produced renewable energy from the sun all night long last night,” Severts said in an email on July 13.

The plant hasn’t produced any energy from November 2016 through at least April 2017, according to the report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration for the first quarter of 2017. The second quarter report will be available in late July.

Santa Monica, California-based SolarReserve, which operates the facility through a subsidiary company, Tonopah SolarReserve, said the 100-megawatt project went offline because of a leak from one of the molten salt tanks in October 2016, less than a year after the plant started generating power.

Mary Grikas, spokeswoman for SolarReserve, said earlier this month that the leak had been fixed but declined to say what repairs had been done to the plant.

“The facility is owned by private investors, including SolarReserve, so details on daily operations and maintenance issues are not made public so as not to affect our position with our competitors, who are primarily international companies trying to replicate our technology,” Grikas said.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal had previously reported that the plant was supposed to be back online in January.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy’s arm that oversees the wholesale of the power and transmission of power plants across the nation, said that no sales had been reported by Tonopah SolarReserve in the first quarter of 2017.

Grikas declined to comment on the report.

“The facility is online, delivering power into NV Energy’s system,” she said. “While we have a 25-year power purchase agreement with NV Energy, we fully expect that the facility will be operating for the next 40 years, or more.”

Severts told the Pahrump Valley Times in June that the outage wasn’t “really affecting” NV Energy’s customers at the time.

“Our customers benefit from the injection of renewable energy into our system, and fortunately, we have more than 40 other renewable energy projects currently providing energy to our customers,” Severts said in an email. “Those resources, coupled with our dozen traditional power plants, meet the needs of our customers 365 days a year and during this current hot spell.”

Severts deferred questions about Crescent Dunes Solar Project’s operational status, citing confidentiality agreements that NV Energy has with all of its 49 long-term renewable energy power purchase contract owners, including SolarReserve.

Late last year Grikas had told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that, “There really isn’t much of a story here,” after the small leak was discovered days following a special solar celebration event at Crescent Dunes where SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith announced plans for 10 more solar arrays as part of a new project in Nye County.

The high-profile event was attended by U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, and then-Deputy Energy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

The Crescent Dunes project received a $737 million federal loan guarantee from the Department of Energy in 2011, a step that was seen as critical for its operation.

Jess Szymanski, press assistant at the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., recently said that any questions about the project’s operations can be directed to SolarReserve since the company oversees that aspect.

“The department’s Loan Programs Office is engaged in active portfolio monitoring with the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project along with all of its projects,” Szymanski said in an email. “LPO remains in regular contact with the owners of the project, and the loan is currently in good standing.”

Smith wasn’t available for comment. SolarReserve initially scheduled a tour of the plant for a Pahrump Valley Times reporter, but the tour was later canceled due to Smith’s schedule constraints.

Nye County’s response

Nye County Manager Pam Webster said she wasn’t aware of the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project’s operational status.

“They were supposed to have gone into production and then, they had a couple of setbacks. But that’s been months since I’ve been brought up to speed on that,” she said.

SolarReserve, the largest taxpayer in Nye County, doled out $9,431,691 in taxes up to this day, company officials said. Of that, $2,827,172 was paid in 2016, and $1,190,340 was paid in 2017.

“The project is forecast to generate more than $70 million in local and state tax revenues over the first 20 years of operation,” Grikas said.

Crescent Dunes has a 24-hour staff of 38 personnel that include site security, safety, control room operators, electricians, mechanics, and solar field technicians, Grikas said. Additional workers on site are currently completing construction punch-list items, which is expected to continue through 2017.

Webster said the breakdown of the plant didn’t affect Nye County’s economy.

“It’s not affecting the local economy, because it’s all about workers. They are not providing the energy directly. Everything they are doing is being transmitted out,” Webster said.

Typically, Webster said Nye County hears little from companies involved in big projects after the construction phase is over.

“We have no contract with them other than the development agreement,” Webster said about SolarReserve.

Meanwhile, SolarReserve’s social media posts dating from October 2016, when the breakdown was reported up to July, didn’t mention anything about the plant’s status or ongoing repairs.

At least six social media posts about Crescent Dunes have been on SolarReserve’s Facebook since April.

“We don’t comment or post on specific operational data in our social media,” Grikas said. “We use social media to both hear from and engage with individuals and parties interested in solar energy and our technology.”

Future plans

The Crescent Dunes Solar Project is the largest molten salt power tower project in the world. Officials touted the technology used in the plant as the world’s leading in solar-thermal storage able to produce electricity day and night.

Grikas said the facility is still on track to ramp up to a full 500,000 megawatt-hours of annual power delivery that was expected to happen in January 2017.

“The plant performance expectations have not changed,” Grikas said.

In addition, its Sandstone solar project in Nye County that will feature 10 more towers, continues to progress with land selection, permitting and associated environmental studies.

“We aren’t yet able to share an estimate about when the project will start construction, but it will create about 3,000 construction jobs, attract $5 billion in capital investment, generate over $600 million in tax revenues through the first 20 years of operation, and support 350 long-term operational jobs in Nye County,” Grikas said.

Grikas said a goal of the Crescent Dunes project was to validate SolarReserve’s “breakthrough” solar thermal technology with integrated energy storage at commercial scale.

“The key technology provided by SolarReserve, including the molten salt receiver, is performing in excess of design expectations,” she said. “The project, which has had some commissioning delays, not uncommon with deploying a ‘first-of-its-kind,’ is a remarkable success story for American engineering and technology advancement.”

These innovations will be applied to SolarReserve’s projects across the globe, including a Sandstone project, Grikas said.

“We are developing projects similar to the Crescent Dunes facility in a dozen countries, including Chile, the Middle East, South Africa, China and Australia,” Grikas said.

SolarReserve received an award from the South African Department of Energy to build a 100-megawatt project which will be almost identical to the Crescent Dunes project.

Contact reporter Daria Sokolova at dsokolova@pvtimes.com. On Twitter: @dariasokolova77

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