Nevada Solar One – The Hybrid Car of the Solar Power Generation

The world’s third largest solar array began production of electricity in the Nevada desert last year, pumping out 64 Megawatts of power, enough to power 14,000 to 15,000 homes during peak operating times in the middle of the day. Last week, federal, state and local officials held an official unveiling ceremony to celebrate the fully-operational plant.
This would be an incredible advancement and great news on the renewable energy front – if this was really a solar-driven electrical-generation facility.

The little tidbit about the plant that is being downplayed is that it will primarily use natural gas to drive the turbines, making it a solar-assisted power plant, not a source for generating electricity from renewable or sustainable sources.

That’s the good news.

The bad news: a Spanish company, using Israeli-built parabolic mirrors, built the facility.

The even-worse news: the facility covers a surface area of 14 million square feet, or nearly 3 square miles, using the sun to heat a fluid to 750º F to drive standard electricity generating turbines. And the solar portion of the hybrid power facility only truly operates during the middle of the day.

The plant was built in accord with the goals of the state of Nevada, which has set a target of 5% of its electricity being generated by solar power by 2013. Nevada Power and Serra Pacific are under to a 20-year purchase contract with Acciona to buy the electricity being produced at the Nevada Solar One facility, also known as the Boulder City plant. The plant lies near the existing power grid.

At the ceremony, Acciona’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jose Manual Entrecanales said, “We chose Nevada [for the location of Solar One] for the outstanding commitment of this state to the development of sources of renewable energy.”

And while a laudable goal it is, the question still needs to be asked -Is Nevada Solar One really fulfilling that mission?

A quick and dirty analysis of the demographics of the area brings one to the appalling realization that in order to just keep up with the growth of Las Vegas, which lies 51 miles away, one of these mammoth facilities would have to be built roughly every four months. To the tune of $266 million, which is what Acciona Energia invested in this gargantua.

A 563 MW system that would dwarf Nevada Solar One is being contemplated 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles – and only 50 MW of its electricity would be generated by the arrays of parabolic mirrors which automatically track the sun in its course through the sky. Again – this is a hybrid, with natural gas being burned to drive the turbines.

Ironically, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg announced the day before the Nevada ceremony that reliance on natural gas for power generation is not only a poor choice for national security reasons, but also one of the worst possible choices for eliminating greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

“Investing in LNG infrastructure today could make sense if it helps moderate natural gas prices and keeps existing natural gas power plants running,” said H. Scott Matthews of CMU in the press release. “But making this investment ultimately locks us into certain technologies that make it harder for us to change paths in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.”

In a recent conversation with Richard K. Lester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he concurred with this assessment.

“What we have here is a convergence of three very big challenges, each one on its own that would constitute a major challenge,” Lester said. “The first is climate change. The second is the problem of our reliance on external and somewhat unreliable sources of supply of oil and increasingly gas. The third, the growth-driven increase in energy demand and the pressure that is placing on the supply and the environment. We have all three of these problems converging that will be with us over the next few decades.”

“The problem is how to navigate through this storm of events.”

And it would seem that continual reliance on these hybrid solar-assisted power plants is steering the wrong course.