Renewable Project Goes Bankrupt

DOE-backed plans for solar/storage array at Crescent Dunes haven’t panned out

With all the promise of renewable energy technologies, we can get lost in the plethora of feel-good headlines. Especially with integrated projects, such as solar-plus-storage, sometimes it feels like renewable energy ideas are immune to failure. News from the Nevada desert this week proves that isn’t true: the DOE-backed Crescent Dunes layout announced it is bankrupt.

Operated and developed by SolarReserve and backed by ACS Cobra and Banco Santander, the project is located outside Tonopah, Nevada, and began back in 2009 when a 25-year PPA with NV energy was agreed upon prior to any construction. However, plenty of construction has happened since then…

…the issue is capital. The project has run out of money to operate the plant—mostly occurring prior to the coronavirus pandemic (SolarReserve filed for bankruptcy in late 2019)—and will face great uncertainty until a new buyer is found.

In September 2011, the Department of Energy issued a $737 million loan guarantee to finance Crescent Dunes, a 110-MW concentrating solar power (CSP) plant near Tonopah, Nevada. It uses power tower technology that concentrates solar energy to heat molten salt, converting that heat into electricity. Upon completion, Crescent Dunes became the largest molten salt power tower in the world.

Crescent Dunes planned to be the first deployment of solar power tower technology in the United States using molten salt as a primary heat transfer fluid.

Here’s how the method works: the heat absorbed by the salt can be stored and produce electricity when required. This enables the plant to generate clean, renewable power during times when direct sunlight is not available. The innovative molten salt storage allows the project to generate power at full load on call (dispatched) for up to 10 hours without any sunlight.

“Crescent Dunes created more than 600 construction jobs and is expected to support 45 permanent jobs,” according to the DOE website for the project. “Under the project’s unique development agreement with Nye County, the project targets filling 90% of the construction jobs with Nevada residents, utilizing both union and non-union subcontractors. During operations, the project will disburse more than $10 million per year in salaries and operating costs.”

Crescent Dunes was expected to generate 482,000 megawatt-hours of clean energy per year while preventing 279,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Various news outlets are reporting that the storage tanks were problematic from the start and the plant had stopped generating electricity in April of 2019.

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