PRIMM – Eight months after he touted the job-generating power of renewable energy, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar returned to Nevada’s newest solar power plant with a different message.
On Monday, it was all about the energy.
Calling it a landmark day for America, Salazar flipped the ceremonial switch on the nation’s first large-scale solar power plant to be built on public land.
The Silver State North Project, 40 miles south of Las Vegas, went on line in late April, when it began delivering more than 50 megawatts of electricity to customers in Nevada.
The 600-acre array in the Ivanpah Valley, not far from where Interstate 15 crosses into California, features roughly 820,000 photovoltaic panels capable of powering about 9,000 homes on a hot summer day.
More important, said Salazar and others at the event, the plant has no emissions, produces no waste and consumes no water.
“This is my favorite part of the U.S. because I see these projects coming up,” said Salazar, before joining company officials in the flipping of a large power switch that wasn’t actually connected to anything.
There was little talk of jobs on Monday, and for good reason. The project employed about 350 workers during six months of construction, but the finished array requires only two people to run it.
Alan Bernheimer, spokesman for the company that built the plant, said the panels don’t even need to be cleaned. It would cost more to wash off the dust than the plant would gain in added efficiency, he said.
The solar panels and the facility as a whole were designed and constructed by First Solar. Since Salazar’s previous visit in September, the Arizona-based company has sold the plant to Enbridge, a Canadian-based firm with extensive U.S. energy infrastructure holdings.
First Solar will continue to operate the plant and “stand behind” its panels, said Frank De Rosa, the company’s senior vice president.
NV Energy has agreed to buy all the power generated by the Silver State North Project over the next 25 years.
Fifty megawatts represents less than 1 percent of NV Energy’s capacity in Nevada, but the purchase will help the utility meet a mandate that requires at least one-quarter of the power it delivers to come from renewable sources by 2025.
But at more than 13 cents per kilowatt hour, the electricity from Silver State North Project is among the most expensive in NV Energy’s portfolio. By comparison, the utility pays roughly 5 cents per kilowatt hour for power generated by burning natural gas, while renewables such as geothermal and wind cost the company between 9 and 10 cents per kilowatt hour.
Technological improvements continue to drive down the cost of solar power, but “utility-scale” arrays are still limited by the amount of land they require for the comparatively small amount of power they produce.
The 16 solar plants that have been authorized on federal land since 2009 have a combined capacity of 560 megawatts. NV Energy’s coal-fired Reid Gardner power plant near Moapa has a capacity of 557 megawatts, day or night.
First Solar’s photovoltaic panels generate power only during daylight hours, and efficiency is reduced when it’s cloudy, though the facility can still produce some electricity even during a rainstorm.
Enbridge Vice President Dan Thompson called it “solid-state technology” with no moving parts and very small maintenance costs.
“And the best part: Fuel is free,” he said. “The only thing is to have another sun in orbit. That would double the productivity.”
This is the fourth solar plant, and the first in the United States, that Enbridge has purchased from First Solar.
Enbridge President Al Monaco said his company also might be interested in buying First Solar’s next venture in the Ivanpah Valley, a 2,000-acre, 250 megawatt solar array in the permitting process. The Silver State South Project, as it is known, also will be built on public land.
“This isn’t a fad. This renewable energy is here to stay,” Monaco said.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.