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During the next few years, two large fields of parabolic troughs, SEGS I and II (for Solar Electric Generating Station) were installed about 160 miles southwest of Las Vegas, near Daggett, California. They were followed by seven more plants nearby, at Kramer Junction and beside waterless Harper Lake. The plants are still operating—about a million mirrors in all on some 1,600 acres with a combined power of 354 megawatts. From afar they look like mirages.

The momentum didn't last. As the economy adjusted to the Iranian oil shock, fuel prices fell. With the sense of urgency reduced, along with the research dollars, solar remained a minor factor in the energy equation. The SEGS plants were still being built when President Ronald Reagan took the solar water heaters off the White House roof. The first solar revolution fizzled.

Two decades later, a new solar revolution may be ready to begin.

Another legacy of the Carter era, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado—the government's primary research center for solar, wind, hydrogen, and other alternative fuels—is bracing for a resurgence. When I visited last fall, a new research campus and headquarters were under construction against the side of a mountain outside Golden. Five acres of photo­voltaic panels on top of the mesa will feed the labs and offices below. That may be just the beginning. Once treated by the government as something of a stepchild, NREL is benefiting from the extra money the Obama Administration is devoting to renewable energy. "Right now solar is such a small fraction of U.S. electricity production that it's measured in tenths of a percent," said Robert Hawsey, an associate director of the lab. "But that's expected to grow. Ten to 20 percent of the nation's peak electricity demand could be provided by solar energy by 2030."

But not without government help. Nevada Solar One would never have been built if the state had not set a deadline requiring utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015. (More than two dozen states now have "renewable-portfolio standards," and earlier this year Congress was debating a federal one.) During peak demand—a hot afternoon in Las Vegas, when production costs are highest—the solar plant's electricity is almost as cheap as that of its gas-fired neighbor. But that's only because a 30 percent federal tax credit helped offset its construction costs.

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