June 13, 2010

Remote California town blazes trail with solar plant that saves water

New technology uses less water, which suits Nevada’s climate

A view of the Skyline Solar facility in Nipton, Calif. Friday, June 11, 2010. The 80 kilowatt , High Gain Solar (HGS) 1000 system power plant will provide 85% of Nipton’s electricity needs. (Steve Marcus)

By Stephanie Tavares
Las Vegas Sun

On the southern horizon is a new breed of solar plant, one that could be a game changer for the industry.

Just across the California border, Nipton has unveiled a sun-powered generator that is expected to provide about 85 percent of the town’s electricity over the course of a year.

The solar plant uses a new technology, concentrating solar photovoltaic, known as CPV, which could be a boon in places like Nevada where the sun is strong, but water for power plants is scarce.

Concentrating solar power plants are expected to use far less water than their solar thermal cousins because they lack the cooling requirements and don’t need water to heat for steam. And because they have fewer photovoltaic panels to be cleaned than a traditional photovoltaic plant, they could use less water than traditional photovoltaic arrays.

Although massive solar arrays on thousands of acres of mostly federal land get the lion’s share of the attention, some think everyday Nevadans will benefit more from growth in small-scale renewable energy systems called distributed generation. These smaller projects, like rooftop solar or small terrestrial projects like the one in Nipton, provide electricity directly to a building without expensive transmission lines. No bulldozing the desert, either.

The state energy office this month announced it will seek third-party agreements with small-scale solar developers to build dozens of new arrays on state land. Some of the projects are expected to be relatively portable solar arrays on vacant lots — just like the one 64 miles southwest of Las Vegas in Nipton.

The 80-kilowatt project is part of the one-time mining camp’s plan to become an eco-tourism mecca. Nipton is on the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, home of the popular Kelso Dunes. Many park visitors are “granola and Prius” types, and they usually stay at campgrounds and hotels in Nipton. The town is betting that stepping up its environmental reputation will drive tourism growth.

“We’re in the hospitality business in Nipton,” said Gerald Freeman, its principal administrator. “This is all part of our plan to be an environmentally friendly destination. We’re going to project our environmentalism strongly. That’s the underlying theme of Nipton for the future: to move progressively toward a sustainable, environmentally friendly community.”

And in the Mojave Desert, that means solar panels.

Freeman has been looking into powering the town with renewable energy since the 1980s. But it was only recently, with the new technology, federal tax incentives and the advent of third-party ownership, that the plan became economically viable.

It took just a few months for Freeman to find a company that would finance the purchase and installation of the system in exchange for a set price per kilowatt hour sold to Nipton residents.

Prices charged by the local utility, Southern California Edison, have gone up an average of 6 percent a year, Freeman said. Under the power purchase agreement, the rate could increase only 3 percent a year. And after the tax incentives run out in about six years, the town has the option of buying the installation at a reduced price.

“We’re pleased to be able to lower our cost and also do our bit in terms of getting off fossil fuels,” Freeman said. “It’s going to save us money right from the start and will get better later on as electric (bills) rise. It was an easy decision to put in a system that would cover most of our power needs in Nipton.”

The system is designed by Skyline Solar, a Silicon Valley-based solar photovoltaic manufacturer that has combined the portability of solar photovoltaics with the concentrating power of mirrors used in solar thermal power plants.

With the help of an Energy Department grant and U.S. Patent Office fast tracking, Skyline is among the first American companies to bring concentrating photovoltaic designs to market.

Its system resembles the Nevada Solar One thermal array in Boulder City, except where the center-mounted pipes full of molten salt would be is a row of photovoltaic cells. Using photovoltaics on a concentrating solar power frame allows the plant to take up less land, and eliminates the need for extensive land leveling, pipe laying and liquid storage silos. And with the addition of mirrors, it can produce far more electricity than a traditional solar photovoltaic array.

No pipes, no buildings and no water or chemicals are needed, Skyline spokesman Tim Keeting said.

Products such as Skyline’s can be planned and assembled quickly — the Nipton project took just five weeks to come online — and they can be built with tiny footings drilled into the land or no drilling at all, making it easier to convert back to bare dirt should the land be needed for another use later, said Robert Mumford, spokesman for the solar division of Panelized Structures, which installed the system.

The Skyline system is one of the first concentrating solar photovoltaic systems to come to market. That’s mostly because the federal government has historically channeled research and development grants to rooftop photovoltaic technologies, according to National Renewable Energy Lab reliability group manager and photovoltaic pioneer Sarah Kurtz, who was involved with the Energy Department grant and attended a ribbon-cutting celebrating the new power plant in Nipton on Friday. A few of the town’s residents were there along with local and county dignitaries and the team of engineers, government workers, contractors and financiers who made the project happen.

“There has been a real change in just the last few years,” Kurtz said.

The Skyline system, which she called “elegant and versatile in its design” was able to move from paper to prototype much more quickly than some other CPV systems because the design was simple and took components that had been tested elsewhere and combined them for increased efficiency and expedited assembly.

“Skyline has broken some records on bringing this to market with speed,” Kurtz said.

These smaller solar installations also save land because they usually sit on developed sites or sites that were bulldozed in anticipation of development. And they rarely need new transmission lines and corridors to carry the power to market because they usually serve nearby buildings.

Skyline has about 20 megawatts worth of projects in various stages around the globe, including Nevada. Keeting said it is too soon to reveal exactly where and when its first CPV project will begin construction in the state, but he says if all the contracts and permits work out it could be within the next couple of years.

Small-scale solar is a growing business in Nevada. Panelized Structures’ Las Vegas team built its first large distributed generation solar project in the parking lot of the ProCaps laboratory in Henderson two years ago. The business has grown by as much as 100 percent each year since, while the rest of its building divisions foundered, Mumford said.

“The business has just exploded,” Mumford said. “In the month between May and June, we’ll install 3.4 megawatts of solar panels across the Southwest — about 2.5 megawatts in Nevada alone.”