Las Vegas: Making hay while the sun shines

Just the name “Eldorado Valley” conjures up Old West images of hot dusty trails and gunfighters on horseback heading to the nearby Colorado River in search of water.

Today Nevada’s sweeping Eldorado Valley, just east of Las Vegas, is home to a new kind of search. To harness the power of the sun and turn it into electricity.

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Last week in a visit to Las Vegas I had the chance to drive into the Valley and see the blossoming solar projects up close.

Solar Farmland:

If the Midwest is the nation’s breadbasket, the Southwest is the nation’s solar heartland. 300+ days of bright intense sunshine make the Eldorado Valley an ideal location to harness the sun’s rays. The close proximity to power hungry Las Vegas and southern California means nearby ready energy markets.

The broad expanses of the Eldorado Valley are now dotted with glinting fields of mirrors. Nevada Solar One is a project of UNLV and Acconia Energy.

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(Photos by Paul Huttner)

The 64 MW project uses Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) technology to superheat fluid filled tubes that drive conventional electric turbines to produce electricity.

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The description from Acconia.

“Project at a Glance

Location: Boulder City, Nevada

Technology: Concentrating Solar Power (CSP)

Collaborators: Nevada Power Company and Sierra Pacific Resources

Construction completed: June 2007

Size: 400 acres, 64 MW

Projected CO2 emissions avoided: Equivalent to taking approximately 20,000 cars off the road annually.

Local tidbit: It is estimated that an energy project utilizing concentrating solar power technology deployed over an area of approximately 100 x 100 miles in the Southwest U.S. could produce enough power for the entire U.S. annually.

ACCIONA’s Nevada Solar One is an environmentally friendly, renewable utility-scale power solution that creates power with near-zero carbon emissions. The 400-acre, 64-megawatt plant harnesses solar energy to power more than 14,000 homes every year. It is the third-largest concentrating solar power plant in the world and the first such plant built in 17 years. Nevada Solar One represents a major renewable-energy success story and has the potential to compete directly with conventional fossil fuel-powered technologies.”

“ACCIONA’s Nevada Solar One uses proprietary technology to track the sun’s location and concentrate its rays during peak demand hours. The plant employs 760 parabolic concentrators with more than 182,000 mirrors that concentrate the sun’s rays onto more than 18,240 receiver tubes. Fluid that heats up to 735°F flows through these tubes and is used to produce steam that drives a conventional turbine, which is connected to a generator that produces electricity.”

The concept of solar energy is not new. The current push seems to focus on large scale renewable generating plants that can rival coal, hydro and nuclear efficiencies and output. Other projects are popping up in the Eldorado Valley.

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It remains to be seen when large scale solar power generation will be able to replace traditional sources like coal and nuclear, but it’s both interesting and encouraging to see efforts in that direction.


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