Nevada’s solar building boom

November 29, 2010


Over the past three months, California regulators have made headlines by licensing seven huge solar thermal power plants that would generate nearly 3,500 megawatts of electricity if all were built in the Southern California desert.

Garnering far less attention is a solar building boom that is getting under way in neighboring Nevada, which eventually could build plants that send electricity to California as well.

In October, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the  Silver State North Solar Project, a 60-megawatt photovoltaic power plant to be built by First Solar on 618 acres of government-owned land near the casino town of Primm 40 miles south of Las Vegas.

And earlier this month Salazar signed off on a 500-megawatt solar thermal complex called the Amargosa Farm Road Solar Energy Project to be built by Solar Millennium, a German developer, some 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Several other large solar projects are currently under review by the United States Bureau of Land Management.

Although state environmental review of big solar power plants in Nevada is far less extensive than in California, the Solar Millennium project initially caused an uproar in Amargosa Valley, a hardscrabble town of sun-beaten mobile homes.

While some residents welcomed the prospect of 1,300 construction jobs coming to a county battered by recession, others worried about the project’s impact on their water supply.

Solar Millennium originally proposed using a technology to cool the plant that would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water annually, or about 20 percent of the desert valley’s available water.

Conservationists, meanwhile, expressed concern about the consequences of such groundwater pumping on the endangered pupfish, a tiny blue-gray fish that survives only in few aquamarine desert pools fed by Amargosa Valley’s aquifer.

Under pressure from the federal government, Solar Millennium, which also is building 1,500 megawatts’ worth of projects in California, agreed to use a cooling technology that will only consume 130 million gallons of water a year. The company will lease the water from the holder of existing water rights.

Solar Millennium also consented to reduce the footprint of the project from 7,630 to 6,320 acres.

“The plan ensures that the project will have a net neutral benefit on the plant and animal species found at nearby Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and Devils Hole,” the Interior Department said in a statement.

Now comes the challenge of breaking ground by year’s end to qualify for an expiring percent federal cash grant that would cover 30 percent of the project’s cost as well as securing a federal loan guarantee considered crucial to obtaining financing for construction.

(Photo: Todd Woody)

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