"Looks like this will be a 700-degree day," says one of the operators in the control room. His job is to monitor the rows of parabolically shaped mirrors as they concentrate sunlight on long steel pipes filled with circulating oil, heating it as high as 750 degrees Fahrenheit. From the mirror field, the blistering liquid pours into giant radiators that extract the heat and boil water into steam. The steam drives a turbine and dynamo, pushing as much as 64 megawatts onto the grid—enough to electrify 14,000 households or a few Las Vegas casinos. "Once the system makes steam, it's very traditional—industry-standard stuff," says plant manager Robert Cable, pointing toward a gas-fired power plant on the other side of Eldorado Valley Drive. "We get the same tools and the same parts as the place across the street."
When Nevada Solar One came on line in 2007, it was the first large solar plant to be built in the United States in more than 17 years. During that time, solar technology blossomed elsewhere. Nevada Solar One belongs to Acciona, a Spanish company that generates electricity here and sells it to NV Energy, the regional utility. The mirrors were made in Germany.
Putting on hard hats and dark glasses, Cable and I get into his pickup and drive slowly past row after row of mirrors. Men with a water truck are hosing down some. "Any kind of dust affects them," Cable says. At the far edge of the mirror field, we stop and step out of the truck for a closer look. To show how sturdy the glass is, Cable bangs it like a drum. Above his head, at the focal point of the parabola, the pipe carrying the oil is coated with black ceramic to soak up the light, and it's encased in an airless glass cylinder for insulation. On a clear summer day with the sun directly overhead, Nevada Solar One can convert about 21 percent of the sun's rays into electricity. Gas plants are more efficient, but this fuel is free. And it doesn't emit planet-warming carbon dioxide.
About every 30 seconds there is a soft buzz as a motor moves the mirrors a little higher; by midday they will be looking straight up. It's so quiet out here one can hardly fathom how much work is being done: Each of the 760 arrays of mirrors can produce about 84,000 watts—almost 113 horsepower. By 8 a.m. the oil coursing through the pipes has reached operating temperature. A white plume is spewing from a cooling stack. Half an hour later, the sound of the turbine inside the generating station has reached a high-pitched scream. Nevada Solar One is ready to go on line.