The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar thermal project outside Las Vegas, Nevada is finally starting to rise from the desert, with the potential to supply 370 megawatts of power to nearby grids.
The massive 3,600 acre site is being developed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, and will consist of more than 347,000 heliostat mirrors which will focus solar energy on centralized towers, creating steam to run nearby turbines. Controlled by software, the mirrors will track the path of the sun in two dimensions, reflecting light to boilers atop the 459 foot tall towers.
The project was approved in 2010, but environmental factors – including relocating a threatened species of desert tortoise – delayed construction. Crews began installing the hundreds of thousands of mirrors in February of this year. The project is on pace to be completed in 2013. Once operational, it will produce enough power for more than 140,000 homes
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Solar thermal energy production is still in question, as prices for photovoltaics continue to drop (in spite of recently imposed tariffs). Steam turbines are a nearly 140-year-old technology, yet still make up more than 90 percent of all energy production in the United States as heat is easy to store and energy generation can continue throughout the day and night. Whether direct energy production can rival these traditional methods in the near future remains to be seen, especially given its latest iterations in projects like Ivanpah.