Nevada Solar One powers 14,000 homes
When it came online in 2007, Nevada Solar One became the first new thermal solar electricity plant to be built in the U.S. in more than 17 years. Generating enough electricity to power 14,000 homes, the 64-megawatt plant is currently the third largest in the world and uses a promising technology called concentrated solar power (CSP).
This emerging commercial technology, while seemingly new to most people, is actually quite old. In fact, it’s ancient.
Nevada Solar One uses more than 180,000 curved mirrors arranged in parabolic troughs to concentrate the sun’s rays onto tubes filled with synthetic oil. That oil heats up high enough to boil water into steam and then the steam turns a turbine to generate electricity.
It’s basically the same way Archimedes, a Greek physicist and astronomer living in the third century B.C., is purported to have set enemy ships on fire – by having soldiers hold their curved bronze shields up so they focused the sun’s rays on the enemy’s wooden warships. And hundreds of years before, the Chinese used “burning mirrors” to light firewood.
CSP technology made a comeback in the U.S. after rising oil prices in the 1970s renewed interest in alternative energy. In fact similar, though, smaller and less efficient projects were built in California’s Mojave Desert in the 1980s.
However, when oil prices retreated and federal and state tax incentives dried up, commercial-scale solar electricity was largely abandoned, discarded as uneconomical.
Now, oil prices are well above $100 a barrel. Both presidential candidates are calling for caps on carbon emissions. More states are enacting renewable portfolio standards.
Nevada Solar One, built by the Spanish energy giant Acciona, covers 400 acres of the Nevada desert near Boulder City, about 20 miles east of Las Vegas. It took 16 months to build, cost approximately $266 million, and created 800 construction jobs and 28 permanent positions.
Electricity produced by the plant is sold to the Nevada Power Company and its parent company, Sierra Pacific Resources. The purchase agreement will help these companies meet state requirements that 20 percent of its electricity come from renewable resources by 2015.
Does something based on concepts so old still work? The state utility commission thinks so.
“Despite some loss of production due to some pretty bad lightening storms last summer, the plant is meeting its contract in supplying energy to Nevada Power’s customers,” said Sean Sever, public information officer for the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada.
Cassandra Stern, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a contributor to the Apollo Alliance.
For More Information:
Nevada Solar One: http://www.nevadasolarone.net/
Public Utilities Commission of Nevada: http://pucweb1.state.nv.us/pucn/
Nevada Power Company: http://www.nevadapower.com
Photo: Nevada Solar One uses more than 180,000 curved mirrors arranged in parabolic troughs to concentrate the sun’s rays onto tubes filled with synthetic oil to boil water into steam. Credit: Ansco Machine Company