To me, it just looks cool. A light so brilliantly white you can’t stare at it without going blind. A tower of light in an empty desert. There is a legend about Archimedes using burning glass to destroy the invading Roman fleet and save the Greeks. Perhaps we can do the same to save us from our energy needs.
Ivanpah is a concentrated solar thermal plant with concentric mirrors or more simply a solar oven. Put a big pot of water in that solar oven and you have a steam generator. This idea isn't new, with Auguste Mouchout producing a steam engine from the sun in 1866. We continue to use steam to produce electricity, but mostly with fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. Ivanpah is relatively unique and the largest example of solar thermal in the world. We were very excited when we were approved to visit the site and talk with one of their engineers.
In science the topics of fossil fuels and renewable energy are found throughout the curriculum. In Alberta where we live, coal is the main source for our electrical energy with wind providing the largest amount of renewable energy. We wanted to see what solar looked like so we could share this with our students. With Alberta being the sunniest province in Canada, there seems to be an opportunity for growth in this area. It’s unlikely to be in thermal, but there are opportunities for photo-voltaic energy. Even in everyday life it's much more common now to see solar panels on homes, RVs and electronics. We have embraces this energy source as well and we've only used solar generated electricity to power our trailer throughout our trip so far.
While this plant is not without controversy, it was impressive both to see it in use and their commitment to protect the environment. While we were there we saw biologists monitoring the site, found out that they reduced the size of the plant to protect the desert tortoise and had a program to relocate any tortoises that were found. As science teachers we know that it's impossible to predict all outcomes and large scale designs like Ivanpah help us to learn and test new technologies and theories. Time will decide how effective this method is at generating electricity and it will probably help to advance future ideas.
We were happy for the opportunity to visit and will take away a great science experience for us and our kids. In addition, we have an additional example of renewable energy to teach our students about. Now we head East, back to Arizona and perhaps the largest hole on land!