Jan 22 3:30 PM

Sustainability of solar energy at a crossroads

As you approach the dusty Nevada town of Tonopah on a desolate two-lane highway, you can’t miss the giant tower rising up on the horizon. There is a red light on top that flashes like a beacon, signaling to all passing traffic that this is not a mirage or an environmentalist’s desert fever dream.

The tower is part of Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, a sustainable solar field built about 200 miles north of Las Vegas by the California-based company SolarReserve. It’s the first of its kind in the U.S. — a 24/7 energy plant that uses giant mirrors and molten salt to capture the sun’s rays, convert them to energy and store that energy until power is needed.

SolarReserve uses thousands of tracking mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight on its central tower receiver.

The scale of the project is striking — both visually and by the numbers. According to the Department of Energy, this facility alone will reduce the release of nearly 280,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually — “equivalent to the emissions of more than 50,000 vehicles.” The Crescent Dunes project is still under construction, with 8,500 tracking mirrors, or heliostats, assembled so far on a 1,500-acre field.

The development of such a large project required a confluence of support from private and public investment, most notably that of the federal government, which under President Barack Obama drastically increased its commitment to clean energy. In September 2011, the Department of Energy gave SolarReserve a $737 million loan guarantee for a 110-megawatt solar-power tower, which it also allowed to be built on federal land.

The price for solar power is still higher than what utility companies pay for energy from traditional sources, but utilities have increasing incentives to diversify their energy portfolios. Thirty states, including big markets like California, are now required by their own laws to buy a significant portion of their energy from renewable resources such as solar, and another seven states have set more voluntary goals. In California, 33 percent of energy must come from renewable sources by 2020.

Tracking mirrors, called heliostats, concentrate sunlight that can then be converted into energy.

Before even contributing power back to the grid, SolarReserve secured a 25-year power purchase agreement with Nevada’s utility company, NV Energy, which is aiming for 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. This will, of course, assist in the repayment of the loan, but it also helps promote solar power long-term.

Even with many states on pace to match California’s and Nevada’s requirements, trends in the industry show that the solar building boom — kicked off by the Obama administration nearly five years ago when the president signed a $787 billion economic stimulus package with major clean-energy incentives — may actually soon be over.

The question that remains is whether the investment will lead to future purchases of solar power. Prices for natural gas continue to plummet, making it an appealing alternative for utility companies, even though natural gas is not considered as clean as solar power. As bottom lines are examined, utilities may be more swayed by cost than impact.

As a country, the U.S. had made progress in reducing carbon emissions by 12 percent since 2008. However, now that DOE loan guarantees have expired, those gains could easily be lost as the solar subsidies fade and shale gas prices plummet. Without price parity — which is common in European markets — we may not be able to maintain the progress we’ve made beyond the mandated benchmarks.

Contributor Kyle Hill talks to Tonopah town manager James Eason.

Tonopah’s town manager, James Eason, agrees that there has to be a mix of economic and environmental benefits, but believes in solar as a long-term solution. “If people's energy prices stay relatively flat, I think they'll be happy,” Eason told “TechKnow.”

“We know solar is the more expensive power,” he said. “But over time there is not a market on rays of the sun. The one thing that's a little bit different about this project is that their raw material — it's not subject to an Enron, or somebody like that, that is manipulating the fuel price.”

In markets like India and Africa, solar energy is more affordable than diesel-based energy production. As we enter the evaluation period of significant investments in solar energy, the industry is closely watching SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes project — which is just months away from being able to provide power to 70,000 Nevada homes. It’s the first commercial application of molten-salt technology in the U.S., and when construction is done, it will be the largest molten-salt-power tower in the world. It could present a new — and more cost-efficient — model for solar energy providers, and by one estimate would raise rates by only about 1 percent.

SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith predicts that this facility will leapfrog the U.S. into a leadership position in terms of solar technology, and that in years to come, the energy market will reflect that — especially if the federal and state governments continue to make it a priority.

“We shouldn't just let the markets decide,” Smith said. “This is critical to life. It's critical to advancement of society. It's critical to everything that we do. And so there's every reason in the world for government to be involved in our energy future, to make sure that we're doing the right things.”

Watch "TechKnow," Sunday 7:30ET/4:30PT, to learn more about SolarReserve and the future of alternative energy.



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