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Group sees promise in solar power

May 10 - John G. Edwards Las Vegas Review-Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Large solar thermal power plants, which use the sun's heat to generate electricity, could generate 715,000 megawatts of electricity in Nevada without greenhouse gases that lead to global warming, an advocacy group said Thursday in a new report.

Benjamin Schreiber, staff attorney for Environment America, the group that made the report, ranked solar power considerations high in an appearance at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Solar thermal plants can store heat for around six hours, making their electric production available during most hours of the day, he said. He contrasted that with wind farms, which only create electricity when the wind is blowing.

Solar thermal power plants can generate electricity for 14 cents to 16 cents a kilowatt hour, which is higher than the cost of power from natural gas and coal. But solar power plants don't emit carbon dioxide, which scientists say leads to global warming.

One megawatt is enough to power 200 homes in the summer. The estimated 715,000 megawatts would be more than 100 times the peak power consumption recorded at Nevada Power Co. last summer.

A 100-square-mile area, which would be 9 percent the size of Nevada, could provide enough solar electricity for the entire country if there were enough power lines to distribute the energy, Environment America said.

Southern Nevada residents already are getting some of their electricity from a solar thermal plant, the 64-megawatt Nevada Solar One project that Acciona Energy built at Boulder City. Solar thermal plants use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun to boil a liquid and then use the steam to spin electrical generators.

Officials agreed solar thermal could work in Nevada.

"Solar thermal is ready to go for prime time," said Scot Rutledge, director of the Nevada Conservation League. "It's a viable engineering choice. The only thing holding it back is the (lack of) a long-term tax credit."

Robert Boehm, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Center for Energy Research, has been coordinating research into photovoltaic solar power, the flat panels that convert sunlight directly into electricity. He said photovoltaics are expensive now but he suggested that the prices may drop in the future. He sees solar thermal plants as a more immediate energy solution.

Nevertheless, Boehm said, photovoltaics are promising. In the future he expects houses and buildings around the country to have roofs with built-in photovoltaic cells. These solar cells would create electricity for the owner's premises and for distribution through the electrical grid.

Environment America's announcement and its report, "On the Rise: Solar Thermal Power and the Fight Against Global Warming," came three days after a national coalition sent congressional leaders a letter advocating extending tax credits for renewable energy projects. The coalition includes Sierra Pacific Resources, the parent of Nevada Power Co.; the Sierra Club; the Natural Resources Defense Council; GE Energy; and Xcel Energy.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., and House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri on Wednesday introduced a renewable energy tax credit bill with the support of 32 other representatives.

The House bill is a companion to a measure that Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced earlier. The Ensign-Cantwell bill was passed in April as part of the Senate's Foreclosure Prevention Act.The House, however, stripped the renewable tax credits from a foreclosure prevention bill.