On paper, the idea of solar power looks great. It’s affordable, sustainable and powered by a resource that will never run out (well, not anytime soon, anyway!). There’s just one little caveat—you kind of need it the sun for it to work, making it essentially useless at night or on gloomy days. Of course, some companies have found ways to store it for when the sun isn’t out, but it’s hella expensive—which kind of defeats the purpose.
However, this might all be about to change, thanks to a gigantic new solar plant in Las Vegas. Spanning over 1,670 acres near the Nevada Desert, The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project provides energy on demand, even when it’s dark. It’s filled with more than 10,000 mirrors, each the size of a small house. These track the sun’s rays all day and channel it into a receiver filled with molten salt. The energy is stored as heat (approximately 1000 degrees Fahrenheit or 530 degrees celsius), which can be released to turn water into steam when the grid needs power. This drives the generator and makes energy in rain, hail or shine.
“Whether it’s in the daytime or the nighttime, it provides base-load stable power,”says Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, the company that built the new plant. “If you get a bit of cloud cover that goes across at three o’clock in the afternoon, we’re always drawing out of storage, so we continue to operate at 110 megawatts. We don’t miss a beat, and the utility doesn’t see any fluctuations in the power output over the day.”
Pretty wild, right? Interestingly, the Crescent Dunes plant cost around $1 billion to build, which is cheaper than a brand new coal or nuclear plant. Not only that, but the next solar plant projects they’re working on are 30 to 40% cheaper, and they expect the cost to keep coming down. One of the company’s next projects, a one-gigawatt plant in China, will be 10 times as large as the one near Vegas. By 2020, China plans to build 10 more—the equivalent of 100 solar farms the size of Crescent Dunes.
While it may be a while before we feel the impact of moving towards solar energy, we think this marks a giant step towards a more sustainable—and dare we say, sunnier—future.