One of the most important things to know about solar thermal (heat) power is that it’s carbon-free, which means that it emits no carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides or sulfur oxides — which are all gases that scientists believe contribute to global warming. And unlike fossil fuels, which are limited resources that we could someday deplete, solar “fuel” is renewable as long as our sun exists! Solar thermal power plants, like the enormous Ivanpah facility in the Mojave Desert in California, are nothing new. A total of nine such facilities were built in the Mojave between 1984 and 1991, and the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) is the largest of all of them. In fact, it’s not only the largest such facility in the U.S. — it’s the largest in the entire world!

What is the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility?

The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is actually made up of three separate plants which were built in phases between 2010 and 2013. Together, the three plants generate enough electricity to power more than 140,000 California homes at the peak demand hours of the day. Amazingly, the complex reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by more than 400,000 tons each year! The facility went on-line right after completion in 2013 and currently supplies power to PG&E and Southern California Edison.

The plant is situated in the town of Ivanpah Dry Lake, California on about 3,500 acres. During the construction phase, it generated over 2,600 jobs for construction works and support staff. Upon completion, it employed a staff of about 65 made up of both permanent and seasonal workers. It’s estimated that the facility will pay the town of Ivanpah Dry Lake, and the state of California about $350 million over the first 30 years of its operation, so it’s a win-win for the town itself, the state as a whole, and the 140,000 homes whose electricity it generates!

How Solar Thermal Power Works

Like most solar thermal power facilities, the Ivanpah employs hundreds-of-thousands of mirrors to collect heat from the sun’s rays and focus it on solar receivers sitting atop towers. Unlike photovoltaic (PV) thermal power — the kind that converts sunlight directly into power to light solar landscaping lamps or power a watch, the Ivanpah provides power indirectly, through a process known as concentrating solar thermal (CST). With CST, heat from the sun’s rays is collected and then used to heat a fluid until it produces steam. The steam then powers a generator which produces electricity. Just as the heat from burning coal in a coal-fired power plant turns a turbine which powers its generator, the heat from liquid heated by the sun produces steam to turn the turbine that powers the solar power plant’s generator.

Two Types of Solar Thermal Systems

The power generated by the sun can either be collected passively — like a car’s interior heating up on a sunny day — or actively, which entails using equipment (like mirrors, receivers and towers) to absorb, collect and store solar radiation. Obviously, a solar power facility uses the active method. The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight, while receivers “collect” the heat (thermal) energy and use it to power a generator.

All of the active components that make up the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility are controlled by sophisticated software and a control system that uses its 300,000+ mirrors to track the sun in two dimensions and reflect it to boilers that sit atop its three 459 ft. high towers. When sunlight hits the boilers’ pipes, it heats the water and produces steam which is then piped to a standard power plant turbine which generates electricity that is transmitted through lines to power homes and businesses.

It’s a tidy system that provides environmental benefits in the form of cleaner air, less water used because Ivanpah recycles all of the water it uses back into the system, and minimal impact to the land which requires little grading and therefore less damage to the surrounding landscape.

Some Controversy

There are, of course, a few controversies surrounding this enormous solar power facility, and some of it has to do with the mirrors. Birds collide with them, or are burned up in the solar flux they create. There is also concern about the glare they produce affecting airline pilots’ visibility when approaching overhead.

The plant is also visually “imposing” according to the California Energy Resources and Conservation Development Commission, and little can be done to reduce its visual impact. However, precautions such as fencing to keep wildlife out of the facility grounds and the recycling of water via air-cooling the steam to return it to a liquid, has allayed some of the concerns initially raised by the National Parks Conservation Association.

No matter how the electricity coming into your home in the Las Vegas region is generated, there are times when you need the services of a licensed electrician for an inspection, repairs, or upgrades. When that time comes, be sure to contact us at Penny Electric, serving the electrician needs of the Las Vegas area including Henderson, Summerlin, Green Valley, Boulder City and the surrounding Southern Nevada areas.