This month, a revolutionary three-part renewable energy system will start pumping out power in Churchill County, Nevada. Marking a groundbreaking approach combining geothermal energy, solar panels and mirrors will be tested for the first time ever; for those who've been waiting with baited breath for sustainable methods to become the standard, it's a brave and bright new world.
The Triple Threat Power Plant
Located about two hours east of Reno, the Stillwater Geothermal/Solar Hybrid Plant has had its components constructed in installments, with the geothermal plant becoming functional in 2009 and the 89,000 panel, 110-acre solar panel field opening for business in 2012. And now, before the end of the month, a portion of the plant's solar thermal field (a giant arrangement of mirrors) will be completed, with the remainder of the project wrapped up by the end of the third quarter this year.
The plant's output will be supplying the nearby town of Fallon, NV with all of its energy needs. (Granted this sleepy town resides in a county with a population of 25,000—it's no thriving metropolis—but that doesn't make it any less of a victory for proponents of a renewable future.)
So just how does this trifecta of sustainability work?
1. Geothermal energy via a binary cycle: Geothermal energy is created when piping hot underground pools produce high-temperature water and steam, which can be routed through a well and then transformed into usable energy through several methods. The Stillwater plant employs a binary cycle technique, which involves passing water through a heat exchanger. (Heat is transferred to a liquid such as isobutene, which boils at a lower temperature than water—the key requirement of this step). The resulting fluid heats up to produce steam, which serves to power turbines and complete the process.
2. Solar Panels: This technology's been around for quite some time, but just in case you've managed to avoid this sun-fueled exploit, solar panels soak up the sun's rays to be transformed into (and stored as) usable energy. What you're likely less knowledgeable on is the fine print of this process, which involves photons (aka light particles) dislodging electrons from atoms to create a flow of electricity . . .which conceptually is a little more cray.
3. Solar Thermal Field: Twenty-two rows of twenty-foot mirrors are arranged in a conclave shape in order to multiply sun rays' energy 75 times. Much like the awful memory that is the UV reflective tanning accessories, the same idea has been applied to good (not orange) use, providing a wealth of sunshine to transfer to usable energy.
How Renewable Energy Is Reinventing Nevada
Nevada's solar hotbed location (we're sweating just thinking about it) coupled with plenty of naturally-occurring geothermal tapping opportunities has put the state on the front-lines of renewable innovation—and is having a particularly powerful impact in the casino haven that is Reno. The city's economy (which in case you haven't heard) largely revolves around gambling and tourism, has long been on the decline, and sustainable energy could provide much-needed re-invigoration, while providing the planet with a helping hand. With companies like Apple and Tesla setting up shop in the state, the influx of job creation isn't limited to merely power plants, but rather expands exponentially with each new development in the industry.
Will the Three-Part Power Plant Become the New Standard?
Since the Stillwater plant is in fact the first-ever of its kind, the project has actually been funded by the research and development faction of Enel, its Italian parent corporation, and has partnered with the National Renewable Energy Lab as well as the Idaho National Lab to scrutinize the efficiency of the three-part system, especially the mirrors' impact on output. The data gathered will help analyze what can be improved and ideally replicated elsewhere.
The Stillwater plant relies on naturally-occurring environmental conditions, making the system dependent on the elements (and unlikely to become the new standard of energy production). However, the mirror component adds an exciting twist, and could potentially add some serious punch to solar panel capabilities. Additionally, as this is a never-before-seen endeavor, the renewable possibilities that could be discovered haven't even been conceived of yet.