This solar power plant in Nevada could finally wean humanity off of fossil fuels

An hour away from Area 51 in the Nevada desert, this solar power plant "banks" energy in a way that could be replicated across the world. 

This solar power plant in Nevada could finally wean humanity off of fossil fuels

An hour away from Area 51 in the Nevada desert, a beacon shines inexhaustibly day after day. And while its proximity to the famous classified zone makes some travelers believe they have seen something alien, the artifact is far from being extraterrestrial.

The beacon is part of a revolutionary solar generating and storage technology that may finally make solar power an undeniable competitor to coal and nuclear. With the first utility-scale facility already operating in Crescent Dunes, Nevada (and several more under development around the world), we are hopefully seeing the beginning of a new era in energy production. 

The technology is called concentrated solar power (CSP) and uses a system of mirrors to concentrate solar energy and turn it into thermal by heating up a medium. The Crescent Dunes Power Plant, developed by the company SolarReserve, uses salts to capture and store the energy from the sun. The result is solar power available 24 hours a day, that can meet utility demands just like conventional fossil fuels, except without any emissions or hazardous waste. 

While a CSP facility may look like a photovoltaic farm, the only similarity is that both technologies use sunlight as fuel.

At Crescent Dunes the sun’s energy is concentrates via 10,347 tracking mirrors called heliostats to a precise point on top of a central receiver tower. Highly accurate GPS measurements and algorithms enable the movement of the mirrors throughout the day and the positioning of the beam on the receiver.

Cold salt, stored in a tank next to the tower, is pumped up to collect the generated heat which can reach up to a 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The molten salt is then pumped down into a hot salt tank which acts like a battery, preserving the heat for up to 16 hours. Unlike batteries, however, molten salt lasts for 40 years or more, without any degradation or need for replacement and it also costs less.

The molten salt in the tank can then be used to generate steam to drive a turbine and create electricity. This part of the cycle is identical to the process used in traditional coal or nuclear power plants, except it is 100 percent renewable and 100 percent clean.

Credit: SolarReserve

The Crescent Dunes plant produces more than 500,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, twice the generation of an equivalent sized photovoltaics (PV) plant. Storage allows the facility to produce more than twice as much net annual output (kilowatt hours) than an equivalent sized photovoltaic (PV) solar project. Its 1.1 gigawatt-hour storage capability alone is about equal to all the world's utility scale batteries combined. 

100% of the generated energy is purchased by NV Energy under a 25-year contract, and used for distribution to its customers during peak demand periods. The solar plant can power 75,000 homes, day and night.

SolarReserve's future projects. CSP plants are in blue. / SolarReserve

Now, falling prices of CSP are making prospects for the technology look promising. The new plants SolarReserve is building in Australia and Chile are expected to sell power at 6 and 5 cents per kilowatt-hour respectively - prices comparable to those from photovoltaics. Construction costs have also been cut in half, from almost $1 billion for the Crescent Dunes plant.


Mark Mehos, program manager for CSP research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado said for Inside Climate News:

"We really need to see installations, on the ground, that match those bids and that operate reliably.”

The construction and performance of the new CSP plants currently in the pipeline will be the deciding factor for the future of the technology. But Mehos is optimistic, “It seems inescapable, doesn't it?”



How New York's largest hospital system is predicting COVID-19 spikes

Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.

Credit: Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
  • The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
  • Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

3,000-pound Triceratops skull unearthed in South Dakota

"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.

Excavation of a triceratops skull in South Dakota.

Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
Surprising Science
  • The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
  • It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
  • Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Keep reading Show less

World's oldest work of art found in a hidden Indonesian valley

Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.

Pig painting at Leang Tedongnge in Indonesia, made at 45,500 years ago.

Credit: Maxime Aubert
Surprising Science
  • Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
  • The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
  • The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Keep reading Show less

What can Avicenna teach us about the mind-body problem?

The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.

Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
Philosophers of the Islamic world enjoyed thought experiments.
Keep reading Show less

The incredible physics behind quantum computing

Can computers do calculations in multiple universes? Scientists are working on it. Step into the world of quantum computing.

Scroll down to load more…