Solar array under construction at Nellis

The Air Force teamed up in a private-public venture to turn a dusty old landfill at Nellis Air Force Base into what will be the largest solar photovoltaic station in North America.

Gov. Jim Gibbons said Monday that the electricity-generating project will make Nevada "a new frontier" for renewable energy.

In an interview before he spoke at the groundbreaking for the 70,000-panel Solar Star system, Gibbons said Nevada and the Air Force "are leading the way" toward converting the state's potential for solar, wind and geothermal power.

"I think this is the beginning of a new frontier, the beginning of utilization of our natural resources which are abundant, unlimited and are homegrown here in Nevada," he said.

Spread over 140 acres at the western edge of the base, the $100 million array of panels designed to track the sun will generate 15 megawatts of electricity, enough power for 11,000 homes.

After completion early next year, Solar Star will provide 30 percent of the electrical power used at Nellis, which translates to $1 million in savings of taxpayers' money to operate the base each year, base officials said.

SunPower Corp. of San Jose, Calif., will provide many of the solar panels. The panels are being produced in the Philippines, assembled in China and installed by local partners who will install the system of "trackers" on the earthen cap of an old landfill at the base.

The trackers, each containing about a dozen solar panels, will rest on heavy concrete pods.

The solar station was designed this way in order to avoid penetrating the site with concrete posts that could potentially compromise the landfill's protective cap.

Photovoltaic systems convert sunlight directly into electricity.

A larger 64-megawatt solar plant in Boulder City's El Dorado Valley will instead use thermal power to generate electricity.

Together, the two solar power stations will make Nevada a leader in clean energy from the sun, Gibbons said.

"This is helping us meet that expectation of using solar to the capacity that we can to help reduce our dependency on foreign fuel, on carbon-based fuels, so not only do we have a cleaner environment but we can utilize more of this natural resource we call the sun," Gibbons told reporters gathered at the wind-blown landfill site.

His words barely audible in the blustery setting, Gibbons noted he was hopeful "we'll get a little of this wind energy tied into that as well down the road. But right now, this is a great start. This is the beginning of seeing something tremendous in our ability to supply energy for the state of Nevada."

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission allowed Nevada Power Co. to buy energy credits for 20 years from the Solar Star station to satisfy state law on renewable energy. Solar Star will also serve as a backup in case of a Nevada Power outage.

MMA Renewable Ventures is leasing the 140 acres from the base and has arranged to sell the renewable energy credits to Nevada Power and its parent company, Sierra Pacific Power.

"If they're successful here with this project, we can see replication and multiplication of this idea in areas throughout Nevada," Gibbons said.

He said that would include the Nevada Test Site, where plans for a wind power project were scrapped because of Air Force objections to turbines churning atop hillsides.

"There are other areas where you can put that type of technology to work," Gibbons said about wind power at the test site. "Out there, there's some interference with what goes on in the operations of the Air Force in range complex. ... I can't imagine what the interference would be using solar."