Solar Shines On

In recent weeks, Nevada has taken big steps toward the goal of becoming a green energy powerhouse with the announcement of financing agreements for two new solar-power generating plants: SolarReserve’s 110-megawatt, molten-salt Crescent Dunes plant near Tonopah; and Fotowatio Renewable Ventures’ 20-megawatt solar panel farm 25 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Both projects are relying heavily on loan guarantees from the Department of Energy though stimulus funds, and both would have been in question if the loan guarantees had been zeroed out, a proposal that was on the table earlier this year during the battle over the federal budget. Loans for innovative projects were ultimately spared, but the DOE program ends in September and projects not already well under way are out of luck.

SolarReserve’s Tonopah plant, which got a $737 million guarantee, certainly qualifies as “innovative.” It will use a series of mirrors to train the sun’s rays on a central tower, atop which sits a tank of molten salt. When heated, the salt can either be used to generate steam to drive a turbine, or stored in an insulated tank for later use. Storing the salt allows the plant to continue generating power after the sun goes down, thereby addressing one of the major drawbacks of solar power.

It will be the largest plant of its type in the world, and it wouldn’t be coming here without the stimulus funds, says SolarReserve chief financial officer Michael Whalen. “To yank the carpet out from under our feet would have been catastrophic. It is fundamental to our Tonopah project.”

The Fotowatio plant, on the other hand, seems to qualify for its $45.6 million in loan guarantees largely on the jobs it will create—estimated at 250 during construction—as it’s not particularly large or innovative. As Forbes blogger Todd Woody reports, the same company has larger projects in the pipeline that won’t get, or apparently need, loan guarantees.

To date, the feds have provided $30 billion in loan guarantees.

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