Las Vegas to light up with solar

The federal government approves another renewable energy project on public land. Solar Millennium's Amargosa Farm plants will generate power during the day, with thermal energy storage into the night.

The Department of Interior gave the okay for another huge solar project on federal land earlier this week. The first such approvals for renewable energy on public land came earlier this fall and are destined for the deserts of southern California . This one is headed for Nevada.

Solar Millennium's 500-megawatt Amargosa Farm project consists of two concentrated solar thermal plants. Their parabolic troughs direct sunlight to heat a fluid medium within a tube to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit in order to generate steam and power large turbines. Some of the electricity generated via the sun reflecting off thousands of acres of mirrors would help power the many A/Cs, slot machines, casino facades, and fountains of "Sin City." It all sounds so shiny.

But not all bets have cleared for the German company. They still need:

  • Pending DOE loan guarantees (set to expire December 31)
  • A power purchase agreement with Nevada utility NV Energy
  • EPA approval under the Clean Water Act (pertaining to the Armagosa River)

Solar Millennium's CEO Josef Eichhammer addresses some of these concerns in a statement:

Our decision to plan a power plant with dry cooling also helps to accelerate the approval process, as we need 90% less water to cool the steam cycle. We will now intensify our negotiations with utilities regarding the power purchase agreements as well as our engagement with the permitting authorities for the two plants, so we will be able to commence construction for both projects by the end of 2011.

The company's original plan, the NY Times reported last year, was to use a cooling method that would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water annually. After some public outcry over the region's limited water supply, the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service began working with Solar Millennium on strategies to shrink its footprint, ecologically and physically. The solar farm's water use now, according to the BLM, should not affect the wetlands within nearby Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The two plants will also cover about 1,300 acres less than previously planned (from 7,630 to 6,320 acres). Nye County's property taxes on the plants will come to $13.9 million each year.

While Nevada's Amargosa Valley, about 80 northwest of Las Vegas, is typically a sunny place, each plant's solar thermal technology can store the sun-generated energy for 4.5 hours in the case of cloudy days or at night. To improve the Nevada's grid for incoming renewable energy projects, the state broke ground just last month on a new 235-mile transmission line running south-north between Las Vegas and Ely.

Nevada hopes to achieve a 25 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard by 2025.

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Images: Solar Millennium

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