The biggest thermal power plant in the world experienced a literal meltdown last Thursday. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California set fire to itself after misaligned mirrors directed beams of molten sunlight at its own infrastructure.
The power plant works by using heliostats (solar panels) to reflect and focus sunlight onto boiler towers to create what is known as “Supercritical steam”. Heated to around 570 degrees Celsius, this steam drives turbines and creates electricity. As a process, it is much cheaper and more sustainable than fossil fuels. However, this system is not without its own flaws. The plant is believed to incinerate nearly 28,000 birds to death per year (generally considered to be too many birds) and now, it seems, has started incinerating itself.
According to San Bernardino County Fire Captain Mike McClintock, misaligned mirrors reflected the sun’s rays into wires around 300 feet up one of the boiler towers, quite literally causing them to melt. Fortunately, no one was injured and the resulting fires were brought under control in less than 20 minutes. The plant as a whole even managed to remain online while this all happened. So, while not that dramatic an accident, the idea of a “solar meltdown” is at least somewhat amusing. It does highlight a few issues with thermal power plants a whole, however. If it’s to become a ubiquitous source of power, it needs to stop setting itself on fire, and it definitely needs to stop setting upwards of 76 birds a day on fire.