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In the Mojave Desert, 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors, each about 7 feet high and 10 feet wide, reflect sunlight to boilers that generate steam to drive turbines that generate electricity.

Huge solar plant marks ‘dawn of new era’

– A windy stretch of the Mojave Desert once roamed by tortoises and coyotes has been transformed by hundreds of thousands of mirrors into the largest solar power plant of its type in the world, a milestone for a growing industry that is testing the balance between wilderness conservation and the pursuit of green energy across the West.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, formally opened Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles ranging from relocating protected tortoises to assessing the impact on Mojave milkweed and other plants.

The $2.2 billion complex of three generating units, owned by NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy, can produce nearly 400 megawatts – enough power for 140,000 homes. It began generating electricity last year.

Larger projects are on the way, but for now, Ivanpah is described as a marker for the United States’ emerging solar industry. While solar power accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s power output, thousands of projects, large and small, are planned or already under construction, particularly across the sun-drenched Southwest.

The opening of Ivanpah is “a dawn of a new era in power generation in the United States,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. “We are going to be a global leader in solar generation.”

According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, the cost of building and operating a solar thermal power plant over its lifetime is greater than generating natural gas, coal or nuclear power. It costs a conventional coal plant $100, on average, to produce a megawatt-hour of power, but that figure is $261 for solar thermal power, according to 2011 estimates.

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the solar association, said solar systems have seen “dramatic price declines” in the past few years.

That’s good for utilities in California, which must obtain a third of their electricity from solar and other renewable sources by 2020.

The Ivanpah site, about 45 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has virtually unbroken sunshine most of the year and is near transmission lines that carry power to consumers.

Using technology known as solar-thermal, nearly 350,000 computer-controlled mirrors roughly the size of a garage door reflect sunlight to boilers atop 459-foot towers. The sun’s power is used to heat water in the boilers’ tubes and make steam, which drives turbines to create electricity.

While many people are familiar with rooftop solar, or photovoltaic panels, “these are a little bit different,” NRG spokesman Jeff Holland said. “This takes the sun’s rays and reflects them onto towers.”

The plant can be a startling sight for drivers heading toward Las Vegas along busy Interstate 15. Amid miles of rock and scrub, its vast array of 7-by-10-foot mirrors creates the image of an ethereal lake shimmering atop the desert floor. In fact, it’s built on a dry lakebed.

In 2012, the federal government established 17 solar energy zones in an attempt to direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles. The zones comprise about 450 square miles in six states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

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