That above is a small photo of a large technological feat. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System went online in the Mojave desert last week. It’s the largest system of its kind in the world, a joint project owned by NRG Energy, Google and BrightSource Energy. It sits on 3,500 acres of public land and looks like something out of 1970s sci-fi Hollywood. Each of the three 460-foot-tall towers (100 feet larger than the Statue of Liberty) stand in the middle of 100,000-mirror arrays. Each mirror on the site moves with the sun, reflecting the light at boilers sitting at the top of the towers. Water in the boilers burbles into high-temperature steam and spins generators.
Most news readers will know about Ivanpah mostly from the controversy around the fact that it displaced desert wildlife, mainly the Mojave tortoise.
Ivanpah will generate 377 megawatts of power, enough to supply 140,000 California homes. It will cut CO2 emissions equivalent to taking 70,000 cars off the road. It uses very little water, roughly 0.03 gallons per kilowatt hour. That water is used to clean the mirrors. The water used to make the steam that generates power is trapped in Ivanpah’s closed system and recycled. Nuclear power uses 0.72 gallons per kilowatt hour, and coal uses 0.05 gallons.
It’s not distributed power, but it’s constant solar power, and it’s here to stay.