Solar company sees potential in north and south | NevadaAppeal.com

Solar company sees potential in north and south

Photo submitted by AUSRA A closeup view of what solar generating panels look like. They are long glass reflectors which can be individually adjusted to focus the sunlight on a tube full of water overhead, heating the water to produce steam, which drives a turbine to generate electric power.

The company building a factory to create solar generating plants in Las Vegas doesn’t just have its eyes on southern Nevada.

John O’Donnell, executive vice president of AUSRA, says the open, sun-drenched valleys of the north have excellent potential even though they have much harsher winters than the south.

O’Donnell said the higher elevation in Northern Nevada even gives solar thermal generators a boost in efficiency. He said a solar plant at 5,000 feet can be up to 10 percent more efficient than a sea level plant for the same reason people sunburn quicker at Tahoe than San Diego – the thinner air lets more sunlight reach the earth.

He said the plant, which will open for business in April, will produce panels and other equipment for solar thermal generating plants. And he said AUSRA’s system is competitive with gas fired generating plants.

“We’re talking about costs under 12 cents a kilowatt hour,” he said. “And we’re moving to become direct competitors with coal in the next five years.”

While coal-plant supporters argue theirs is still the cheapest method and gas plant backers say their plants produce half the CO2 coal does, O’Donnell said solar thermal beats that boast because it produces zero CO2.

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And unlike either gas or coal, he said, once the plant is built, the cost of making electricity is set in stone.

“You build it and you’ve got the same-priced power for 40 years,” he said. “Gas and coal will continue to increase in price.”

Siting the plant in Las Vegas, he said, made sense because it’s basically at the center of the geographic area best suited to solar power.

“We see a market that is about to happen in a really big way,” said O’Donnell.

Most people, when they think solar, see photovoltaic panels that produce electricity directly from the sun.

In AUSRA’s solar thermal system, O’Donnell said the sun is focused by panels onto a tube filled with water to produce super-heated (700 degree) steam. The steam, he said, spins a generator that produces power. In addition to being much cheaper than solar panels, he said it has the advantage of working after the sun goes down on stored heat.

“It’s cheap and easy to store heat,” he said adding the system can continue producing power for some 20 hours without sunlight.

“California utilities are clamoring for this,” he said, pointing out that state has a statute that requires utilities to increase their percentage of green power a percent each year.

He said with current technology, solar thermal is the best way to meet the growing demand for green power to slow or halt global warming. And, he said, Gov. Jim Gibbons is one of the technology’s fans. He said when Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano rejected the idea of huge solar fields there saying she didn’t want her state to become an “energy farm” for California, “Governor Gibbons took me aside and said, ‘We do.'”

In fact, Gibbons said in his State of the State speech to lawmakers last January one of his goals was to make Nevada an exporter of power by developing solar, geothermal and other resources.

When AUSRA’s Las Vegas factory opens, one of it’s first jobs will be to build the equipment for a 177 megawatt generating plant for Pacific Gas & Electric in California. That contract was signed in November.

O’Donnell said California’s electric power market is 17,000 megawatts.

“Our estimate is that about one third of that investment could occur in Nevada,” he said.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.