Solar Thermal in the Southwest

March 6, 2008 |

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.


Good post! Thanks for given this...

By Solar Power Business on 2009 06 08

the productive powers of labour. The separation of different trades and China may command a greater quantity both of labour and of the necessaries

By Bertie on 2008 03 27

Solar thermal complements nuclear rather than replaces it. The power from solar thermal plants drops substantially during the night (many use natural gas to keep the coolant hot at night). Nuclear is a baseload technology (i.e., 24/7 power).

It sounds like we will need all of our non or low carbon energy technologies to make it through this challenge.

By R Margolis on 2008 03 19

I've heard about super-hot rocks, super heated rocks; an Aussie scientist says they've located a deposit in the middle of the desert that has enough energy to supply Australia's power needs for 100 years. What's more he says that there are dozens of huge geothermal site throughout the world on all continents. Are you familiar with this if so why isn't it getting more attention?

Two, I heard that 1,028,000 square feet of solar panels could provide all of the electric power needed in the US. There are about 5,000,000 commercial buildings in the US, so installing units on all of these would exceed our electricity needs. Clean energy and jobs!

By Eric on 2008 03 15

Charles, I wrote this blog for an audience that I assumed had some familiarity with alternative energy jargon. May I kindly suggest that you spend some time getting up to speed on the basics before commenting? Wikipedia is a fine place to start:

A solar cell is a device that converts energy from the sun into electricity.

A solar panel is a collection of these cells.

A solar plant is simply the name for a facility that manufactures large amounts of solar energy.

The New York Times article that I refer to here deals with solar thermal power rather than photovoltaics. The former works by focusing sunlight to boil water and turn a turbine, while the latter converts sunlight directly into electricity.

By Lindsay Meisel on 2008 03 07

What is a solar plant vs a solar cell or solar panel? Your article is VERY incomplete and does more harm than good for alternative energy development.

By Charles on 2008 03 07