Here comes the sun: Work continues on two regional solar projects

As surely as the sun rises in the East, construction continues on two huge regional solar power projects.

But Ivanpah Solar, near Primm, and Crescent Dunes, just outside Tonopah, aren’t your typical photovoltaic arrays. They’re concentrated solar power (CSP) plants, and they’re the first of their type and size. The global renewables industry is watching to see how — or whether — they work as they go live in the next six months.

“These two plants are projects on an innovative scale never seen before in the world,” said Belen Gallego, founder and director of CSP Today, a trade group that held its seventh annual summit June 25-28 in Las Vegas , and led tours of both plants. “Because of the large scale of the plants and the technology they’re using, they’re completely new. No other market in the world will come close to anything like them in the next five years.”

Kevin Smith, CEO of Crescent Dunes developer SolarReserve, added: “Having these kinds of projects up and running will provide us proof of point, certainly for our technology on the solar thermal side. For us, it’s a huge advancement of the technology to have what’s really the first commercial-scale molten-salt power tower with energy storage.”

Gallego said Southern Nevada leads the way in concentrated solar power for several reasons, including sheer sun power, available public lands, utilities interested in buying the electricity and policymakers and regulators who are “willing to innovate and look forward.”

Nevada Benefits

It takes forward thinking to embrace this technology. Here’s how it works: A circle of ground-mounted mirrors tracks and reflects the sun, and points the light in a 15-foot-wide ray, or flux, at a receiver on top of a tower. At Crescent Dunes, the flux will heat to 1,000 degrees the molten salt that circulates to the top of a 640-foot tower. The salt will create steam that turns turbines for immediate power, or for storage. At Ivanpah Solar, the flux will heat up unsalted water at the top of a 450-foot tower, where a boiler will make steam to rotate turbines for immediate generation. The plant will run only when sun shines, although BrightSource plans a thermal-storage plant in Riverside County, Calif.

Sure, it sounds like the stuff of science fiction (although if you’re like us, your dad swears he thought of this idea as a kid). But California-based companies SolarReserve and BrightSource, Ivanpah Solar’s developer, are poised to make this space-age technology a reality in a big way.

There are only five concentrated solar power plants in the world. They’re all in Spain, and at 10 to 20 megawatts each, they’re too small for large-scale utility use.

In comparison, Crescent Dunes’ one tower is designed to generate 110 megawatts. Ivanpah Solar has three towers to produce 392 megawatts. That’s true utility-scale generation: Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison locked in Ivanpah’s power for 140,000 customers, while NV Energy inked a deal for Crescent Dunes’ 75,000-home load.

Ivanpah Solar, under construction since October 2010 along Interstate 15 just south of the California border, should cross the finish line first. On a June 25 tour, General Manager Mitch Samuelian said the 5-square-mile plant was 93 percent complete, with testing under way. Trucks pulling trailers full of glass were driving onto the site to install the last of the project’s 346,000 mirrors, and in the control room, monitors flashed calibration levels of existing mirrors.

There have been some pleasant surprises: Plant officials had expected mirrors to need cleaning every two to three weeks for maximum power, but because the environment is arid and relatively dust-free, they’ll probably have to clean just three or four times a year, Samuelian said.

And although its power is flowing to California, there’s no mistaking Ivanpah Solar’s economic effect on Southern Nevada. Almost all of the 60 operations staffers are from Las Vegas, Samuelian said. (NRG Energy, the New Jersey company that’s managing Ivanpah Solar, will hire about 25 more full-time workers to run the plant.) And at peak construction in September , 25 percent of the 2,126 workers that general contractor Bechtel Construction Co. had on site were from Southern Nevada.

Now, work is wrapping up, and Tower 1 is scheduled to go live in November. Towers 2 and 3 should be online by the end of December.

Some Risks

Crescent Dunes is a little further behind, partly because it started construction a year later, in fall 2011, and also because it has to build insulated salt-storage tanks. Plus, the project hit a glitch when the Pennsylvania company supplying its mirrors closed its factory. SolarReserve found a replacement company in Arizona and about 20 percent of its mirrors have been installed. Smith said he expects all 10,300 of the billboard-sized mirrors to be in place by February. The first megawatts should flow soon after.

Crescent Dunes is the smaller project, at 1,600 acres, compared with Ivanpah Solar’s 3,600-acre footprint. It has just one tower, although its tower is about 200 feet taller than Ivanpah’s three towers. It should hit peak construction in the next 60 days, when about 700 workers are on site. About 60 percent of the workers are from Nevada, Smith said.

The projects do carry risks. NV Energy’s power-purchase agreement with Crescent Dunes is a 25-year deal that pays 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s about twice the cost of wholesale natural gas, making the plant a pricey proposition if the going rate for natural gas or other fuels stays at current levels, or falls.

Crescent Dunes also has $737 million in loan guarantees backing most of its $1 billion price tag, although the plant has to reach operating milestones to get the money. That means taxpayers won’t be on the hook if SolarReserve can’t finish.

Despite those risks, both projects are drawing big-name investors, as well as attention from around the world. Google is an investor in Ivanpah Solar, and Smith said Crescent Dunes has lured energy developers from South Africa, France, China, Chile, Saudi Arabia and Germany, all curious to see how it’s coming along.

As openings near and attention builds, Gallego said Southern Nevada can expect even more visitors to the plants. She likened the plants to Hoover Dam, another revolutionary power project that still fascinates legions of tourists.

“Over time, perhaps in the next five years, I think Ivanpah and Crescent Dunes will become as much of a tourist attraction as anything in Las Vegas,” she said. “You’ll have commercial flights for people to check them out from the top. They’ll be a part of Vegas like the Stratosphere, as something people come to see, and as something that adds to the Las Vegas lifestyle and the way the economy works here. I think these projects will make a huge impact in ways we don’t even understand yet.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at or 702-380-4512. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.