The Nevada solar-energy plant Crescent Dunes has gone under after receiving a $737 million federal loan guarantee during the Obama Administration. Crescent Dunes, a 110-megawatt facility, was supposed to use molten salt to store heat from the sun, produce steam, and generate electricity even when the sun was not shining. The Department of Energy finalized its loan guarantee on Sept. 23, 2011—a week before the federal loan program expired. Just prior to the finalization of the loan guarantee, Nevada approved $119.3 million in tax abatements for Crescent Dunes over 20 years. The plant also received roughly $140 million in private investment. NV Energy, the largest electric utility in Nevada, agreed to buy the electricity under a 25-year power purchase agreement.
Crescent Dunes began commercial operation in November 2015, missing the deadline established by its agreement with NV Energy. But, less than a year later, the facility went offline because of a massive leak in the hot salt tank. Crescent Dunes resumed operations in the latter half of 2017, but had frequent and prolonged outages. Because of Crescent Dunes’ performance problems, NV Energy was at risk in meeting its renewable portfolio standard obligations.
In the summer of 2019, Crescent Dunes’ hot salt tanks had a catastrophic failure, causing ground contamination and requiring the removal of the solar tower that is needed for the plant to generate electricity as designed, halting operations. The Department of Energy sent a formal default notice in September, followed by NV Energy terminating its power purchase agreement.
Crescent Dunes was not cost-effective. Its average price was over $132 per megawatt-hour, compared to Techren Solar II in Nevada’s Eldorado Valley priced at $31.15 per megawatt-hour.
Crescent Dunes has a solar receiver that sits on a tower and absorbs sunlight from over 10,000 mirrors. The mirrors magnify the sun’s power 1,200 times, heating salt to high temperatures. The molten salt circulates through the tower and is then used to heat a steam cycle that generates electricity. The plant also uses an automated system that controls the flow of molten salt to the receiver.
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