The sun may set at night for the rest of the country, but in Nevada it can continue to shine until the morning — through light bulbs.
The Crescent Dunes project, which delivered its first electrical generation test at the end of 2015, will begin ramping up until it reaches its full generational capacity of 110 megawatts sometime this year, according to a press release from the plant’s constructor SolarReserve. According to the company, Crescent Dunes is the first power plant in the world with fully integrated storage capacity.
And the power won’t be stored in a battery — not exactly. Instead, SolarReserve has built a proprietary storage system that uses concentrated solar power to heat molten salt. It can then pull power from the salt to provide power for 24 hours a day.
The storage capacity strikes at the heart of an important piece of the puzzle the country is facing when it comes to building a power system that generates electricity from clean, renewable sources instead of on-demand fossil fuels pulled from the ground: intermittency. Most renewable resources are only available at certain times — the wind doesn’t blow constantly, the sun disappears at night and hydroelectric dams have trouble generating power during droughts. So more and more, renewable energy advocates and government institutions have been calling for energy companies to buy and build storage capacity to allow those resources to power the grid more consistently and reduce the demand on fossil fuel-burning plants.
Crescent Dunes’ 110 megawatts of storage is a big number in that growing arena. For context: California’s largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, issued a request for offers in 2014 to buy 74 megawatts of storage capacity in order to meet targets set by the Legislature and public utilities commission.
SolarReserve says at its peak the plant can provide enough electricity to power 75,000 homes — a little more than 7 percent of the state’s households by the U.S. Census Bureau’s count.
NV Energy, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary that provides power to all corners of the state, has signed on to a 25-year agreement to purchase all of Crescent Dunes’ generation. Funding for the plant’s construction relied on private investment from ACS Cobra, as well as a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy on $737 million in debt. Sen. Harry Reid commended the collaboration on the project in a statement.
“Nevada will benefit for decades as engineers and experts from around the world come to Tonopah to see what is possible when the public and private sectors come together to build the next generation of clean energy technology,” Reid said in the SolarReserve press release. “Realizing Nevada’s clean energy future can only be guaranteed by a continued commitment to innovation and collaboration between all levels of government and the private sector.”