Kevin Smith, the chief executive of SolarReserve, announced last week a bold plan to cover 25 square miles of Nevada's arid plains with thousands of solar concentrating mirrors. The proposed plant, only 225 miles northwest of Las Vegas, should generate between 1,500 and 2,000 megawatts of electricity or enough to power a million homes.
A huge beacon of light
That's equivalent to a nuclear power plant -- and it almost costs as much as one, too. In fact, the $5 billion initial investment tag is the only thing that keeps this project from going forward. Whether it will receive federal loans is not certain at this point.
SolarReserve already operates a big concentrated thermal power plant in Nevada, the 110 megawatt (MW) Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant located near Tonopah. Here, a 1-mile circle of mirrors called heliostats concentrated solar energy on a 640-foot tall central tower to heat molten salt to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The superheated salts then release their energy to boil water and ultimately drive a power turbine. There is no need for batteries because the salts can release their energy for up to ten hours or nearly 1.1 gigawatt-hours of energy storage, which means Crescent Dunes can keep delivering power even after nightfall.
The newly proposed project, dubbed Sandstone Energy X, would also be built somewhere near Tonopah. However, it will be much more massive -- ten towers, an array of 100,000 mirrors, and molten salt systems for energy storage for each tower.
“It’s a big project. It’s an ambitious project,” Smith told the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Right now, the company is prospecting a site that will fit its needs. They require some 6,500 hectares of available land and hope to pick a site in the next six to nine months, while the first mirror could be placed in 2020. But while Crescent Dunes cost $1 billion, Sandstone Energy X will be a lot more expensive.
Much of the nearly 2GW of power Sandstone would produce will be directed towards the Californian market which is already awash with cheap solar during the day, but requires renewable energy by night.
To make Crescent Dunes, SolarReserve accessed $737 million in federal loan guarantees and it will likely seek the same for this new massive installation. It remains to be seen if this is possible considering concentrated solar power subsidies have been under scrutiny as House Republicans review federal loans in response to the Ivanpah plant which caught on fire.
Nevertheless, it might take a couple of years before Sandstone Energy X is completed. Meanwhile, China might sweep them off as the nation plans to install 6 million panels over 4,607 hectares in the Ningxia region.