April 13, 2011

Nevada Home to Solar Generator/Death-Ray

Mashable has a story today about Google's $168 million-dollar investment in a solar generating plant in southern Nevada. The new Ivanpah Solar plant is designed to generate 392 megawatts of solar energy, approximately doubling the amount of US commercial solar thermal power generation.

The investment is going to BrightSource Energy, a company that develops and operates large-scale solar power plants, specifically to fund its Ivanpah project.

Ivanpah is a solar electric generating system that uses solar thermal technology and “an environmentally responsible design,” to deliver reliable, clean and low-cost power to Californians, according to the project’s website.

The plant will generate energy with a technology called power towers. Mirrors, called heliostats, are arranged in an array and aim the sun’s rays at a receiver atop a tower. The receiver generates steam; the steam causes a turbine to rotate; the rotation causes a generator to generate electricity. Because such large quantities of solar energy are being directed to such a small area, the power towers are very efficient.

The new plant is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, solar energy generation will take a giant leap forward. Current solar production is around 411 MW (2006 numbers). In comparison, the combined output of the two nuclear reactors at our nearby Lake Anna Nuclear Generating Station is around 1,790 MW. One twenty-two year old nuclear plant puts out over four times the current national solar generating capacity, and will still produce double the solar number when the Ivanpah site fully comes online. The Ivanpah site is a really big deal.

Second, Ivanpah was designated as the location for a second Las Vegas-area airport a few years ago. Planning has stalled due to declining passenger volume at McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas's primary airport, but it's still amusing to think of a busy airport operating a mile or two away from a major solar generating plant, which beams its reflected solar energy at a receiver 450 feet up in the air. I wonder if anyone thought about that?