- - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Thanks to a $1.6 billion green energy loan from the feds, pilots are being blinded by glare as they fly over the Mojave Desert. It’s a safety hazard that affects over 40 million airplane passengers a year.

The culprit is the Ivanpah solar energy project, with more than 300,000 giant mirrors spread over 5 square miles of public land provided to BrightSource/NRG Energy. The $1.6 billion loan is only part of $5.2 billion extended to the company by the Obama administration — 10 times what taxpayers lost from loans to the failed Solyndra fiasco.

Since Ivanpah went online in December, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued warnings to pilots of commercial and private aircraft who fly in and out of Las Vegas and destinations in Southern California. They’re told to be aware of this danger in one of America’s busiest aviation corridors.

As one commercial pilot complained to the FAA, “Neither the pilot nor co-pilot could look in that direction due to the intense brightness. The brightness was like looking into the sun, and it filled about one-third of the co-pilot’s front windshield. In my opinion, the reflection from these mirrors was a hazard to flight.”

A July study by Sandia National Laboratories confirms the glare is a serious problem, noticeable 40 miles away, bright at 20 miles away and creating “significant ocular impact” at a distance of 6 miles. That means several minutes of lingering afterimages that make it impossible for pilots to maintain their proper safety lookout for other aircraft in that busy flight path over the Mojave.

The 300,000 mirrors, each about 7 feet by 10 feet, redirect concentrated sunlight upward toward three towers centered among the mirrors. The 459-foot towers are slightly shorter than the Washington Monument. Each is topped by a water tank where the beams are targeted, generating temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That vaporizes the water into steam that is used to power turbines and generate electricity.

But it’s impossible to keep that many huge mirrors focused solely on the comparatively small water tanks as the sun tracks across the sky each day, and its track varies with the calendar.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is asking for remedial action by BrightSource because of daily complaints by pilots, especially during midday hours. McCarran is one of the busiest airports in the world, with over 500,000 annual takeoffs and landings involving over 40 million passengers.

There’s no relief from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the landlord that welcomes Ivanpah and other solar projects even while it constricts fossil fuel development. The BLM published its own guide to the glare, but the bureaucrats essentially confess that they’re baffled.

Ivanpah also poses a threat to wildlife. Estimates say up to 28,000 birds are cooked or even vaporized by its beams. The bright light attracts bugs, and the bugs attract birds. They end up victims of the world’s biggest bug zapper. BrightSource proposes to offset this by donating $1.8 million to programs that spay and neuter cats. Their reasoning is that cats kill over 1 billion birds a year worldwide, so by holding down the cat population BrightSource will save more birds than it kills.

BrightSource intends to build more facilities like Ivanpah, with more federal subsidies and help from the state of California. Ivanpah provides energy for 140,000 homes (although at greater cost than fossil-fuel-generated power). So what are the other claimed benefits?

Company officials brag that Ivanpah will generate $350 million in state and local taxes; but a footnote reveals they are combining 30 years’ worth of tax collections, so the annual figure is only about $10 million. Ivanpah’s $1.6 billion federal loan has an annual “credit subsidy cost” paid by taxpayers that runs about $30 million a year. That wipes out the claim of $10 million in annual state and local tax benefits.

BrightSource’s literature also boasts about generating $650 million in wages. But the footnotes reveal they once again lumped together 30 years of payments, including the labor-intensive construction period. Permanent annual employment at Ivanpah now is only 65 jobs. We’ve issued over $24 million in federal guarantees per permanent job.

Those daunting numbers have not stopped President Obama from heaping praise on BrightSource. Nor have they stopped Mr. Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and fellow Democrats from reaping what likely is millions of dollars in campaign help from those involved with Ivanpah, which includes Google as a major stakeholder. The project’s executives have been frequent White House visitors, and Mr. Obama appointed former BrightSource CEO John Bryson as secretary of commerce. (He resigned after a hit-and-run accident that he said was the result of a seizure.)

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