Solar Mirrors in Nevada: What Are They?

Nevada Solar FAQs
Ivanpah Solar Power Facility

If you’ve driven through any of the major highways in Nevada, you’ve probably seen one of several large installations out in the desert. These installations are formed of thousands upon thousands of mirrors, all reflecting the merciless desert sun towards a central point. As you can probably guess, these are huge power plants. But how do they work? What differentiates them from residential solar?

What Are Solar Thermal Power Plants?

Called “solar thermal power plants,” these solar plants are a  growing trend across the world, particularly here in America. They are beginning to take the place of fossil fuel plants, as opening new fossil fuel plants has been outlawed in many parts of the country. In Nevada specifically, the last coal plant is set to shut down in 2025, making these solar thermal plants even more important than before. 

Most power plants revolve around a simple concept: some form of energy is utilized to boil water, and the steam then turns a turbine. Turning the turbine generates electricity. The type of power plant it is depends on what is used to boil the water. Most power plants utilize fossil fuels, especially coal, which are burned to boil the water and make steam. Some natural gas power plants will heat up the natural gas, mix it with air, and pump it through turbine blades.

How Solar Thermal Plants Produce Power

Solar thermal plants utilize a common mechanism to produce power: mirrors. Set up in the desert, where the sun burns down, these plants have mirrors focused on a central tower. The mirrors and sand reflect the light onto the tower and heat it up. Where they differ is how that energy is collected or stored.

The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is one of the main solar plants in Nevada. This plant utilizes specially designed mirrors to reflect sunlight onto solar receivers, which then boil water to power a steam turbine. It acts similarly to other power plants by utilizing steam, but the water is boiled through natural means rather than by burning fossil fuels. It is the largest of this type of facility in the world.

The Crescent Dunes Solar Facility

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project has had a bit of a rough history, but setting that aside, it utilizes a particularly interesting innovation when it comes to solar energy generation. Instead of merely focusing the reflected sunlight onto receivers to boil water, the sunlight is focused onto a tank of salt. 

Molten salt holds heat for a very long time and the light from 10,000 mirrors keeps it perpetually melted. When nightfall comes, most solar plants have to shut down. The Crescent Dunes plant, however, continues to produce power throughout the night through the heat emitted by the molten salt. Using salt like this is one potential innovation for solar power that will keep it useful even when the sun goes down. 

How Solar Thermal Power Plants Differ From Residential Solar

While reading about these solar plants, there may be something you’ve noticed — they don’t use solar panels. Instead of having photovoltaic modules that absorb sunlight, they use highly polished mirrors that reflect it. The differences between the two practices are based on the amount of power that needs to be produced.

Why Homes Use Rooftop Solar Panels

Turning a turbine is an important way to generate large amounts of electricity. There’s a reason that they are the main tool used for power in solar farms, in wind turbines, and in hydroelectric dams. However, their size makes them almost impossible to use for homeowners. You would need a lot of land, a powerful turbine, and a source of boiling water to keep the turbine going. 

Residential Solar With PV Panels

Because homes cannot utilize turbines, the solar products of choice are photovoltaic panels. These panels absorb sunlight and use the electrons from the light to produce electricity. The panels are then wired into your home and provide electricity directly from the sun.

Additionally, residential solar installations are often paired with battery backup to ensure that homes will have power at night or during grid outages. These lithium-ion batteries are very powerful and can be used either for whole home backup or for emergency situations.

The large solar plants, however, cannot rely on battery backup like homes can. It would take an incalculable number of rechargeable batteries to store the excess energy from one of the solar plants. The molten salt deposits are one way in which these plants can produce energy when the sun goes down, but it will take more work to streamline the operation and make it a viable option across the country.


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