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Clean Power World's largest solar plant of its kind passes milestone

Published on April 4th, 2013 | by Tina Casey

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Salt-Based Solar Thermal Power Plant Takes Shape In Nevada

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April 4th, 2013 by
 
The notorious Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant near Tonopah, Nevada passed another milestone this month, as workers finished placing receiver panels on top of a 540-foot tower that forms the centerpiece of the facility. Crescent Dunes is based on molten salt thermal technology and we say notorious because when completed, Crescent Dunes will give the U.S. bragging rights to the largest renewable energy plant of its kind in the world. In certain quarters, however, the project is also notorious because it benefited from a federally backed construction loan to the tune of a whopping $737 million, creating another potentially juicy opportunity for critics of the Obama Administration’s renewable energy policies.

Unfortunately for anyone who is still rooting for failure, Crescent Dunes is on track for completion by the end of this year.

World's largest solar plant of its kind passes milestone

Salt by kevin dooley via flickr.

Crescent Dunes Molten Salt Solar Thermal Power Plant

What makes Crescent Dunes unique among commercial-scale solar power plants is its integrated energy storage system. According to developer SolarReserve, the facility can provide up to 10 hours of full power storage, which enables it to supply power on an on-demand basis, just like any fossil fuel or nuclear power plant.

Crescent Dunes is similar to a conventional concentrating solar power (CSP) system, using thousands of special mirrors called heliostats to focus solar energy on a central tower.

The difference is the use of molten salt, which flows through receiver panels at the top of the tower, consisting of alloy tubes. The salt retains solar energy in the form of heat, ranging in temperature from 500 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 1,000 degrees. That enables salt to double as both an energy transfer and an energy storage mechanism.

Unlike water, molten salt remains in a liquid state at these high temperatures, enabling it to be transported to ground level and stored through a relatively inexpensive system of pipes and tanks. On an as-needed basis, the heated salt is used to boil water to operate a steam-driven turbine, a part of the process that is exactly like any conventional fossil fuel power plant.

Crescent Dunes And Green Jobs

The recent spate of news about China’s horrific smog-induced public health crisis is a reminder that here in the U.S., we’ve managed to decouple economic growth from the worst effects of fossil fuel dependency. However, the public health costs of fossil fuel dependency still linger, and there is plenty of wiggle room to create a firm platform for sustainable economic growth while reducing pollution even further.

That’s where clean, renewable energy projects like Crescent Dunes come in. Despite the blowback from other conservative legislators, Republican representatives from Nevada went to bat for Crescent Dunes as a win-win economic engine for their state.

The project also gives Nevada bragging rights to cutting edge solar thermal technology designed by SolarReserve’s technology partners including rocket science pioneer Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. That could make a big difference to Nevada, which finds itself lagging behind as Arizona governor Jan Brewer has apparently shelved climate change denial in favor of an aggressive push to woo more clean tech startups to her state.

Currently, there are about 450 workers at the construction site, with a total of about 600 on site jobs expected for the overall length of the 30-month construction period. The on site jobs add to a total of 4,300 direct, indirect and induced jobs expected during construction.

One operational, the 110 megawatt facility will provide enough power for up to 75,000 homes at peak periods and pump $10 million annually into the economy in the form of salaries and other operating costs.

Crescent Dunes And The Keystone XL Pipeline

All of this is by way of a reminder that it is possible to promote economic growth and employment opportunities while adding significant capacity to the power grid, without exposing communities to the risks and impacts of fossil fuel harvesting and transportation.


While fossil fuel projects like the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline have been touted as the best way to create new jobs, the latest argument against it just occurred last Friday in Arkansas when an existing Exxon tar sands oil pipeline ruptured, spilling oil into a residential area and threatening a nearby lake.

Meanwhile, Arkansas and other midwestern states, which used to be considered seismically quiet, have seen a massive spike in earthquakes lately, and seismologists are beginning to amass evidence that the phenomenon is related to the practice of injecting oil and gas drilling wastewater into abandoned wells.

The combination of human-induced earthquakes and underground pipelines adds a new element of risk to ventures like Keystone. Stay tuned.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • joew

    I wonder how much water is needed to run this facility?

  • Otis11

    “which enables it to supply power on an on-demand basis, just like any fossil fuel or nuclear power plant” – Actually it’s definitely better than Nuclear and probably better than most FFs because of it’s response time. Since the medium is already hot enough to make the water super-critical it can be ramped up in a matter of minutes. Coal and Nuclear usually take hours to ramp up, and some as long as 3 days to reach full capacity. NG can hit 60% capacity within 15 minutes, but takes a few hours to get above that because it takes time to build a thermal mass.

    “any conventional fossil fuel power plant” Ah, thermal FF plants yes, but most NG plants run turbines as the main source of energy and only use thermal to improve efficiency in times which they are on for extended times (aka not cycling)

    Also, the comparison with China is flawed – the difference isn’t in the amount of FFs used, it’s in the pollution regulations. Look at LA in the 60s and compare it to today. Restricting emissions solved that problem, not changing fuel sources.

    Don’t get me wrong – I support RE and want to see it grow, but imprecision allows FF advocates room to argue and discredit.

    Only other comment – the keystone thing is irrelevant to this article. It’s comparable to discussing hybrids in an article about fracking… While everything said is true, it makes the author (and article) appear bias.

    Just my two cents.

    • Clyde

      the second word in the article, notorious, is biased. also, the camp arguing against switching fuels from limited resources (known to cause health and environmental damage) to renewable resources are biased, mouth-breathing sell outs. every argument made opposed to switching is garbage:

      - some eagles get killed: that’s a wash because animals get killed when use ff
      - ff is cheaper: is it? are energy wars factored into the price of a barrel of oil? health care costs?

      - windmills are ugly and noisy: oh, right, and not being able to see more than 2 miles across a major city because of the yellow smog is a lot more pretty

      the bottom line is that even if the 3 arguments above and any infinite number of other ones actually are true (i concede i can’t really argue someone’s opinion about how wind mills look), there is one truth that cannot be argued and requires finding alternative fuels: fossil fuels will run out and on the way they’ll only get more expensive.

  • James Wimberley

    The smaller 20mw Gemasolar CSP+ hot salt storage plant in Spain has been running since July 2011. The technology challenge is basically solved, as with PV. It’s now just a question of bringing down the cost.

  • niladri mantena

    Good report on the Solar Thermal Plant that runs on 10-hour storage component.
    Salt is known to be fairly corrosive and you begin to wonder how these guys
    managed this problem. We still have to see the long-term effects of molten salt
    being circulated through many miles of pipelines. But, Nevada can prove the
    point that you do not need massive quantity of water, which they do not have
    in the steaming desert, to keep this plant going for at least twenty years.
    The Federal subsidy could be a non-issue if the plant becomes operational and successful.Thanks for the excellent coverage of this breakthrough technology.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “molten salt, which flows through receiver panels at the top of the tower, consisting of alloy tubes”

      I’d assume that the alloy used is not reactive with the salts.

  • http://twitter.com/KevinSmithSolar Kevin Smith

    Nice article on a great project, but use of the word “notorious” was a bit dissapointing and unnecessary. “Controversial” would have been more fair.
    Kevin Smith, CEO, SolarReserve

    • http://profiles.google.com/ivor.oconnor Ivor O’Connor

      Notorious caught my eye causing me to read the article closely. I liked the article but I wish she clearly stated how much power the plant will be producing. I’d also would have like the article to say something about whether the Palen project, http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/palen, would be larger and baseload.

    • rkt9

      Great News! I do hope the power plant is notoriously successful, inspiring many more to be built throughout our country! Thank you Mr. Smith for leading this great project!

    • http://www.facebook.com/edward.kerr.33 Edward Kerr

      If there is any controversy with this project it is with the fossil fuel proponents who are notoriously wrong about solar energy. (which, ironically, fossil fuels are). They love to point out solar’s “only when the sun is shining” drawback. With the advent of molten salt storage solving that problem (along with the pressure issue) the coal, NG and nuclear lovers now stand naked. The sooner we dump fossil fuels the better and if we don’t do it soon we are going to be in real trouble, if we aren’t already.
      Good report Tina,
      Ed

    • Bill_Woods

      As long as you’re responding, how much is this project costing? Somewhere north of $900 million, obviously, but I’ve never seen an official figure.

      • http://www.facebook.com/edward.kerr.33 Edward Kerr

        With an average coal plant now costing in the one billion range what’s your point? No on going fuel costs, no mercury (and 12 other heavy metals) pollution, no CO2, SO2 what’s not to like?

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