Western States To Expand Use Of Concentrated Solar Power

NREL is supporting the development of technologies that use the sun's warmth to make steam and spin an electricity-producing turbine.

NREL is supporting the development of technologies that use the sun's warmth to make steam and spin an electricity-producing turbine. Called concentrating solar for the mirrors that concentrate sunlight to increase its heat, these systems had seen a flurry of activity beginning in the 1970s and, given the increasing volatility of energy prices, are reemerging.

Earlier this year, a coalition of western states joined with the U.S. Department of Energy and NREL to propose the first large-scale expansion of concentrating solar power (CSP) facilities in several decades. The plan is for 1,000 megawatts of CSP facilities to be built across the West. The first wave of that expansion already is taking shape in Nevada, where a 50-megawatt plant is scheduled for construction next year near Boulder City.

The new facility will make Nevada the second largest solar energy producer in the nation. With nine long-established concentrating solar plants churning out 350 megawatts from its Mojave Desert region, California has long been the country's leader in solar. A megawatt can power as many as 1,000 homes and businesses.

Two solar technologies are able to generate electricity from sunlight - photovoltaics (PV) and CSP. A photovoltaic system usually is deployed in distributed energy applications -- that is to say it most often powers the individual buildings where it is installed. Concentrating solar, on the other hand, is more suited to larger scale, or "central station" application.

That's why utilities, as well as energy hungry states, states are moving to embrace it.

"This is an exciting time for concentrating solar," said NREL researcher Mark Mehos. "There have been a number of improvements that have lowered the cost for these systems, and we are working on new research that will reach the DOE's goal of cutting in half the price of electricity generated from CSP, to just 7 cents a kilowatt/hour."

That would make CSP competitive with other more traditional electrical generation technologies. In addition to Nevada and California, the new concentrating solar power initiative could eventually involve Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Texas.

See related DOE news release and NREL program Web page:

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