mm307: Practical solar power from the desert

MUDGE’s Musings

Alternative energy technology has been of continuing interest in this nanocorner of the ‘Sphere©. One of our favorite posts discussed the emerging technology in some detail.

Today’s most emailed article out of the NYTimes details another take on solar power, from the Nevada desert. No shortage of sand, or, even better, sun. And much more predictable than wind (another topic we’ve looked at several times, most recently here).


The Energy Challenge

Turning Glare Into Watts

By MATTHEW L. WALD | Published: March 6, 2008

BOULDER CITY, Nev. — … for the world appears to be on the verge of a boom in a little-known but promising type of solar power.

It is not the kind that features shiny panels bolted to the roofs of houses. This type involves covering acres of desert with mirrors that focus intense sunlight on a fluid, heating it enough to make steam. The steam turns a turbine and generates electricity.

The technology is not new, but it is suddenly in high demand. As prices rise for fossil fuels and worries grow about their contribution to global warming, solar thermal plants are being viewed as a renewable power source with huge potential.

After a decade of no activity, two prototype solar thermal plants were recently opened in the United States, with a capacity that could power several big hotels, neon included, on the Las Vegas Strip, about 20 miles north of here. Another 10 power plants are in advanced planning in California, Arizona and Nevada.

This low-tech approach to power generation strikes yr (justifiably) humble svt as typical of applied engineering. Generating photovoltaic energy (electricity directly produced by expensive chemical reactions within a solar cell) is the elegant approach and what one thinks of when imagining power from the sun.

But, the prosaic reality is that the least expensive way today to harness the sun is to heat water with it by way of a closed oil system that transfers the heat.

Interestingly, nuclear power generation has the same intermediate step. Energy is created through a nuclear reaction, and as most of its usable output is heat, the energy produced is used to heat water. How boring. I always imagined that a nuclear reaction could be designed to simply directly create electrical power. That’s why I’m not a scientist.

As it happens, environmentalists, who passionately hate nuclear and similarly despise coal fueled power, are also not that thrilled with this new model solar power.

There is significant impact when taking over huge swathes of desert and planting mirrors, sealed oil pipes, water tanks and piping, steam pipes and generators and transmission lines and their towers; it is not exactly a light footprint.

And the desert tortoises are threatened.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Turning Glare Into Watts – New York Times

But, there are considerable advantages to such low-tech, and thus much more competitively priced, solar-powered generation. Not the least is that in the desert, peak solar availability tracks perfectly with peak power demand, as daytime air conditioning use spikes in our burgeoning desert metropolises.

But at least one major disadvantage.

The voice of the turtle might yet be heard: NIMBB!*

It’s it for now. Thanks,



*Not in my back burrow!

Share this post : it! digg it! reddit! technorati! yahoo!


One Response to mm307: Practical solar power from the desert

  1. […] such as alternative energy for transportation (none too soon, paid $3.26/gallon the other day); alternative energy for electric utilities; and the safety and continuity of our food […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s