The generator at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) in California caught fire from a misaligned mirror that directed sunlight at the power plant’s wires. Luckily, no injuries ensued and workers shut down one of the boilers for later repairs.
On the downside, exactly how California’s electricity supply will be affected is unknown, being that the facility now runs at a third of its normal capacity. The electricity that is normally generated powers some 140,000 homes.
The solar thermal facility is the largest in the world and has a gross capacity of 392 megawatts. It generates heat which produces steam that drives turbines in order to make electricity. Under normal conditions, electricity is generated from 173,500 heliostats (devices that angle two mirrors in order to direct sunlight) after the devices reflect and focus sunlight onto boilers, which are situated on top of three 459-foot towers.
The system failed, according to San Bernardino County fire Captain Mike McClintock, due to the fact that the misaligned mirrors reflected sunlight onto electrical wires which were 300 feet above one of the boiler towers.
Despite the fact that the workers were able to control the flames, firefighters had to extinguish the blaze by climbing up one of the boiler towers. There was some damage to steam ducts and water pipes.
The Ivanpah facility also faces challenges with its output levels required in its power purchase agreement and may pose further threats. The incident was not the first danger posed by similar facilities. A solar power plant in Nevada caused the death of a hundred birds that flew into the path of the plant’s “flux field.”
Solar plants have obvious applications in terms of providing electricity, and accidents cannot always be prevented, but there will need to be developments in permanently aligning the mirrors.