Huge solar thermal farm near Vegas delivers first energy to the grid

The massive solar thermal farm Ivanpah, located in the desert about 45 minutes south of Las Vegas, has produced and delivered its first energy to the power grid this week. The milestone is a major one that indicates the farm is almost ready to be fully turned on.

Ivanpah is a new kind of next-gen solar farm that uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto large towers that heat liquids and run steam turbines to create electricity. The more traditional solar systems that are most building on rooftops use solar panels to convert the sun’s light into electricity.

Sea of heliostats at Ivanpah 1When Ivanpah is switched on this year it will use 170,000 mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto three massive, 450-foot towers to produce solar electricity. The first tower of Ivanpah — called Ivanpah 1 — will sell its power to utility PG&E. Ivanpah 3 will also sell power to PG&E, while Ivanpah 2 will supply Southern California Edison.

Ivanpah is the first of its kind at this scale, and represents a new wave of solar power that is being built in the California deserts. The entire site will deliver 392 MW of power, which is on par with a medium-sized fossil fuel power plant. Energy storage and natural gas turbine technology will help the solar farm deliver closer to baseload power (meaning it could run more like a 24/7 coal plant) with greater power reliability than a solar panel farm.

To be sure, Ivanpah wasn’t cheap. It’s costing billions of dollars to build, and includes a big chunk of the funds coming via a loan guarantee from the U.S. government.