Solar Thermal Energy Plant

Solar energy can be produced in a number of ways. There is the familiar solar panel - they are becoming increasingly common as they become more and more affordable. Solar panels produce solar energy through the process called photovoltaics: the rays of the Sun hit the silicon crystals in the panel thus inducing a flow of electrons. Another way to extract energy form sunlight is the solar thermal process.

Solar thermal energy is gathered by the use of parabolic mirrors. The mirrors are positioned to face the Sun, and a clear tube is placed at the focal point where a liquid flowing through the tube is heated. Next, the pipes are run through a boiler where the the steam generated spins the generators creating electricity. This step is not unlike what one might see in a traditional coal-fired plant. All in all, it is a fairly simple and low-tech process as far as the technical requirements for designing and building such a plant is concerned.

There aren't too many of these plants around the world. One was built at the end of the 70's in response of the oil shortage and it is located in the California desert only hours from Nevada Solar One.

This solar energy plant is located 20+ miles outside of Las Vegas in the Eldorado Valley south of Boulder City, NV. If you are driving from Vegas, take Hwy 95 south, drive through Boulder City following the signs and just a stone throw outside of town take the exit to "Searchlight." Within a mile or two you should see the 350 acre solar energy plant on the right-hand side.

As of writing this article (June of 2007), it is not operational yet. It appears that there is still quite a bit of construction is to be done. When complete, it will generate enough power through solar energy to satisfy the needs of 60 thousand of homes. The drawback is that power generated this way is still about three times more expensive than if a coal-fired plant was used.

A major advantage of generating solar energy this way as opposed to the use of solar panels is that it is quite low-tech compared to photovoltaics. The silicon crystals needed to generate a flow of electricity when it is hit by sunlight are formed by baking the compound in an oven then allowed to slowly cool to form the crystals. It requires specialty equipment, which is quite expensive. Even with larger production volumes, solar energy through photovoltaics is quite a bit more expensive than conventional power. Solar thermal power faces the same problem. However the technology requirements are low, economics of scale should more easily close the gap.

Watch a video of Nevada Solar One here:
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