Technology

Giant Desert Solar Plant Powers On

The world's largest solar thermal power plant started feeding power to the grid in September.

By Josie GarthwaiteJan 27, 2014 2:30 PM
The Mojave Desert’s minimal cloud coverage and high elevation make for the perfect solar-energy terrain. In this parched environment, the Ivanpah project uses air instead of water for cooling. (Credit:Jim West/imagebroker/Corbis)

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
 

When the sun rises over the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border, its rays now warm a cluster of more than 170,000 mirrors at the world’s largest solar thermal power plant.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, spread across 3,500 acres of federal land, started feeding power to the grid in September.

Its mirrors tilt to follow the sun’s arc, redirecting light to water boilers that produce superhot steam at high pressure. As in a conventional fossil fuel or nuclear power plant, that steam spins turbines, which generate electricity. Ivanpah's net turbine capacity — its maximum useable output at any moment in time — is 377 megawatts, enough to power about 140,000 homes.

Jim West/imagebroker/Corbis

Challenges ranging from environmental concerns to a dramatic drop in prices for competing solar technologies have meant that “concentrating solar thermal has not yet lived up to its potential,” says Dexter Gauntlett, a Navigant Consulting energy analyst and solar expert. But bringing the Ivanpah project online marks a hard-won success for a new energy model.

[This article originally appeared in print as "Giant Desert Solar Plant Powers On."]

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month
Already a subscriber? Log In or Register
1 free articleSubscribe
Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Log In or Register
More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Join
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

 
Subscribe
To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2021 Kalmbach Media Co.