Will DOE take the Crescent Dunes solar project into bankruptcy?

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Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) has had a rough decade. Ten years ago, the technology, which uses concentrated sunlight to create steam and drive turbines, was all the rage, with multiple gigawatts of solar projects planned in the Mojave Desert following on major industry success in Spain.

But over the next few years CSP, like many other emerging technologies, fell prey to the falling costs of crystalline silicon solar. The fact that the plants operate optimally when located in areas with particularly intense sunlight didn’t help, as many of the locations chosen by developers led to lawsuits with conservationists and Native American groups.

And now, the developer which built one of the few large CSP plants to go online in the United States has a new concern. Last week SolarReserve filed suit against the LLC which owns Crescent Dunes and the U.S. Department of Energy. The lawsuit claims that DOE, which provided a loan guarantee for Crescent Dunes, is stacking the board and trying to push out its sole director.

According to the lawsuit filed last week (and put online by Bloomberg Law), SolarReserve says that DOE is replacing new director which it appointed, via a “notice of default” that the agency sent last month. According to SolarReserve:

The DOE’s actions interfere with SolarReserve’s right to participate in the management of Tonopah; and they result in a forfeiture of SolarReserve’s property rights in a $1 billion project which SolarReserve started in 2008, without an opportunity to contest that forfeiture.

SolarReserve also states that the “independent” managers which DOE has chosen now give it the ability to “exert substantial control” over the Tonopah project, and SolarReserve specifically mentions the ability to file for bankruptcy.

 

Operational issues

The alleged DOE takeover comes in light of other problems at the Crescent Dunes project. According to reporting by the lawsuit, NV Energy has terminated its power purchase agreement with Crescent Dunes after the project failed to generate the required amount of electricity.

Crescent Dunes appears to have struggled for some time; despite signing an engineering, procurement and construction agreement in 2011, the plant only “commenced commercial operations” in 2015. It appears that there is still a debate as to what went wrong with the molten salt storage system, which SolarReserve blames on the construction contractor.

This is not the first U.S. CSP plant that has had problems. This author has documented problems during the ramp up at the Ivanpah Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plant, which like Crescent Dunes utilizes a “power tower” design instead of the more common parabolic trough design.

Either way, without a power contract and with DOE running the board, SolarReserve is warning that bankruptcy could be the next step:

Upon information and belief, SolarReserve believes that in connection with DOE’s purported takeover of Tonopah, on or before October 3, 2019, Tonopah now exposes SolarReserve’s equity to the uncertainly of a Tonopah bankruptcy filing

But whatever happens, this isn’t a good day for a technology that held so much promise.