New-tech solar power plant in Mojave will power up to 140,000 homes


Solar Power Plant in the Mojave Could Power 140,000 Homes



There’s a new type of solar plant coming online. It’s huge, cool looking, and might be able to provide power at night. Does it have a future?

  • The massive solar plant nearing completion in the California’s Mojave desert doesn’t look like the solar plants you might be used to seeing. It has no solar panels, for one thing. Instead, it has mirrors—300,000 of them—all arrayed in rings around three giant towers. The mirrors reflect sunlight onto vats of water sitting on top of the towers, heating them to 500 degrees and powering a steam turbine, providing enough energy for 140,000 homes. When it goes online at the end of the year, it will be one of the biggest solar plants in the world. But the technology at its heart is relatively simple: mirrors, water boilers, and steam turbines.

Ivanpah Solar Power Facility

An aerial view of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility with Tower 1, 2 and 3, where heliostats installation is nearly completed in Ivanpah, California on April 5, 2013. (Gilles Mingasson/Getty for Bechtel)

The plant, called Ivanpah, is funded by Google, NRG, and BrightSource, a company that specializes in what’s called concentrated solar power, or CSP, a method of using focused sunlight to turn a steam generator. The technology isn’t new: a small test plant that uses mirrored troughs to heat oil-filled tubes has been running in California for 20 years. Going back further, you could point to the French inventorAgustin Mouchot, who experimented with solar powered steam engines in the 19th century, thinking we were about to run out of coal. The current batch of plants are huge—thousands of acres—and use computer-controlled mirrors to heat boilers that sit on top of towers. (You can take a virtual tour of Ivanpah’s triple-tower arrayhere.) Three giant CSP plants are scheduled to go online in the next few months, and the companies that have spent years and billions of dollars building them hope they’ll provide a valuable new source of renewable energy.


A view of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System Unit 1 tower and power block from the Unit 1 solar field. (Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images for Bechtel)

The main advantage of this type of solar plant is that it’s easy to store energy from it and save it for later use, something that will become more of an issue as we get more energy from windmills and solar panels. Energy from windmills and solar panels is cheaper, but it’s not always there when it’s needed: demand might be high on a windless or cloudy day, or low on a windy sunny one. A smarter power grid that can redirect power from renewable sources to where it’s needed can help cushion some of this streakiness, but we’re always going to need some reliable, always-available—the industry term is “dispatchable”—source of power. Right now that’s coal, gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric. The CSP industry is hoping solar can join that list, even providing power at night. 

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