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New rays of hope for solar power’s future

High cost of fossil fuel and advanced technology improve this energy source’s prospects.

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Acciona Solar Power’s Dan Kabel (left) and plant manager Robert Cable inspect a mirror array.

Mark Clayton

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From five miles away, the Nevada Solar One power plant seems a mirage, a silver lake amid waves of 110 degree F. desert heat. Driving nearer, the rippling image morphs into a sea of mirrors angled to the sun.

As the first commercial “concentrating solar power” or CSP plant built in 17 years, Nevada Solar One marks the reemergence and updating of a decades-old technology that could play a large new role in US power production, many observers say.

“Concentrating solar is pretty hot right now,” says Mark Mehos, program manager for CSP at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Co. “Costs look pretty good compared to natural gas [power]. Public policy, climate concern, and new technology are driving it, too.”

Spread in military rows across 300 acres of sun-baked earth, Nevada Solar One’s trough-shaped parabolic mirrors are the core of this CSP plant – also called a “solar thermal” plant. The mirrors focus sunlight onto receiver tubes, heating a fluid that, at 735 degrees F., flows through a heat exchanger to a steam generator that supplies 64 megawatts of electricity to 14,000 Las Vegas homes.

Today the United States has 420 megawatts of solar-thermal capacity across three installations – including Nevada Solar One. That’s just a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent) of US grid capacity. But Nevada Solar One could signal the start of a CSP building boom.

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