The vast and glittering Ivanpah solar facility in California will soon start sending electrons to the grid, likely by the end of the summer. When all three of its units are operating by the end of the year, its 392-megawatt output will make it the largestconcentrating solar power plant in the world, providing enough energy to power 140,000 homes. And it is pretty much smack in the middle of nowhere.
The appeal of building solar power plants in deserts like Ivanpah’s Mojave is obvious, especially when the mind-blowing statistics get thrown around, such as: The world’s deserts receive more energy beamed down from the sun in six hours than humankind uses in a year. Or, try this one: Cover around 4 percent of all deserts with solar panels, and you generate enough electricity to power the world. In other words, if we’re looking for energy—and of course, we are—those sandy sunny spots are a good place to start.
But statistics are one thing, building a few thousand gigawatts of solar power is quite another. Deserts are dusty, windblown and remote. So far, only a few hundred megawatts of utility-scale desert solar power have been built. Most projects are in the American Southwest, with a few in the Middle East and north Africa as well. Though progress has been slow and significant technical challenges remain, experts and industry leaders seem to agree that engineering difficulties alone are not holding us back from a big desert solar build-out. “From the technical side, I think we can do it. In fact, I know we can do it,” says Seth Darling, a solar researcher at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. “I don’t know that we can do it from a policy side, but I sure hope we can.”