March 11, 2008
Solar Thermal in the Southwest
The front page of today's New York Times business section ran a heartening article about the burgeoning solar thermal industry in our own American Southwest. With two new plants up and running on the Las Vegas strip, and ten more in the works for Arizona, California, and Nevada, this lesser-known solar technology deserves the spotlight.
For one thing, much of the parts manufacturing is done right here in the United States, rather than being outsourced to China. Whoever says globalization means an end to factory jobs in the U.S. should consider a factory being built right now in Las Vegas to manufacture mirrors for solar thermal plants; it will double the world's manufacturing capacity. And a German company is outsourcing the manufacture of heat-collecting tubes to a factory in Albuquerque.
It takes ten solar thermal plants to generate the energy of three nuclear plants, but this comparison is misleading on its own; it takes only two years to get a solar plant up and running, compared with a decade or more for a nuclear plant. And we need technology like this that can be scaled up quickly -- we don't have decades to waddle around while proposed nuclear plants clear bureaucratic red tape.
We need to continue investing in projects like this, so that we might reach the point where solar thermal plants in the Southwest could eventually power the entire country. Experts say this is possible scientifically, if not politically. Renewables expert Revis James, quoted in the article, hit the nail on the head: "Unless there's a subsidy involved, it doesn't seem like a very attractive technology." Solar thermal plants -- and their associated infrastructure -- are expensive, and they wouldn't exist without heavy government subsidies.
Finally, reporter Matthew Wald should be commended for noting the aesthetic beauty of the plants. He wrote, "Despite the difficulties, solar thermal plants have an other-worldly beauty as they run." People find comfort in the traditional, and are too often quick to criticize the new and unfamiliar. Just look at what's happening with Cape Wind, where a local opposition group opposes the first off-shore wind farm ever proposed in the U.S., largely on the grounds that it will spoil their view of Cape Cod. This kind of NIMBY-ism has no place in the move to a clean energy economy. Wald clearly sees these plants for what they really are -- evidence of humankind's ability to create its own destiny. And if we choose to invest in more clean technologies like this solar thermal plant in Las Vegas, it's going to be a beautiful future indeed.