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Solar Firms Eye Bright Future In U.S.

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Solar Firms Eye Bright Future In U.S.

Environment

Solar Firms Eye Bright Future In U.S.

Solar Firms Eye Bright Future In U.S.

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92342742/92342718" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Solar firm Ausra has just opened a factory near Las Vegas where it is mass-producing 50-foot-long mirrors to cover 4 square miles of desert each year. That would power 500,000 homes. Other solar companies have the same idea.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now back to this country and to an experiment in alternative energy. Picture a desert landscape. In the distance, something shimmering; it looks like a vast blue lake. It's not a mirage. It's mirrors, thousands of them capturing energy from the sun, enough cheap energy to power whole cities. At least that's the vision of a new generation of solar entrepreneurs, as NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: A new factory just opened near Las Vegas, Nevada, built by a company called Ausura, founded by a man named David Mills. Mills is watching robots use suction cups to wield huge sheets of glass. Ausura is mass-producing 50-foor-long mirrors.

Mr. DAVID MILLS (Founder, Ausura): We have to, at peak production, deliver one of these every eight minutes.

SCHALCH: Ausura plans to crank out enough of these mirrors to cover four square miles of desert each year, enough collectors to provide electricity for 500,000 homes. That's a city the size of Albuquerque. Other solar companies have the same idea. They've drawn up plans to produce enough solar energy to supply a state the size of California.

David Mills says this is just the beginning.

Mr. MILLS: Effectively, we're talking about replacement of the existing energy system.

SCHALCH: Pretty audacious, when you consider that solar energy now generates less than 1 percent of the nation's power supply. The problem up until now has been cost and reliability.

Photovoltaic panels can convert sunlight directly to electricity, but they're expensive; so is the electricity they generate, and they can only make it when the sun is shining. Ausura will use mirrors to get around these problems. It plans on making electricity the old-fashioned way.

Mr. JOHN O'DONNELL (Vice President, Ausura): We make electricity in this country by boiling water.

SCHALCH: John O'Donnell is Ausura's vice president.

Mr. O'DONNELL: We burn coal, we burn gas, and we split atoms to boil water.

SCHALCH: Ausura's power plants will boil water by aiming rows of its mirrors at specially coated pipes to make steam to spin turbines. And Ausura thinks that soon it will be able to produce this thermal solar power cheaply enough to compete with coal and gas fired power plants.

The price of natural gas has skyrocketed. New coal-fired plants are controversial and costly as well.

And O'Donnell says thermal solar power offers two big advantages - free fuel and reliability. You can't store electricity from photovoltaic cells because it's too expensive, but you can store hot water.

To illustrate, O'Donnell unscrews a little thermos - the kind you might take to work - then he removes the battery from his laptop computer.

Mr. O'DONNELL: This thermos of coffee and this laptop battery store about the same amount of energy. One of them costs about $5, one of them about $150.

SCHALCH: Thermal solar power plants can use stored hot water to make electricity even after dark.

Investors and utilities are keenly interested, according to Nathaniel Bullard, an analyst with New Energy Finance.

Mr. NATHANIEL BULLARD (New Energy Finance): I think the sort of rational actress in the market have decided that this is now something that's going to go.

SCHALCH: For one thing, utilities are under pressure. Twenty-three states now require them to get at least some power from renewable sources.

Rhone Resch is president of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Mr. RHONE RESCH (Solar Energy Industries Association): Utilities are looking around and realizing we can't build enough wind in our state. We don't have the resources. We can't build enough geothermal. We don't have the resources.

SCHALCH: So, he says, they're turning to solar. Utilities have signed contracts to buy electricity from companies planning seven big solar thermal power plants in California, Arizona and Nevada, and a lot more plans are on the drawing board.

But there are no guarantees this will actually happen. In fact...

Mr. RESCH: All those projects are on hold.

SCHALCH: Resch says that's because of what's happening in Washington. A 30 percent tax credit meant to spur renewable energy investments could expire this year unless Congress renews it. Lawmakers have been bickering about how to pay for this. The industry also needs big sunny expanses of land. The federal government has got plenty of that. It owns the vast majority of states like Nevada and Arizona. But, Resch says, to use it, you need a permit.

Mr. RESCH: The BLM has not issued one permit for a new solar plant in the United States, not one.

SCHALCH: Ray Brady of the Bureau of Land Management says his agency is working on this, but it's simply overwhelmed. In the past year and a half, it's received 125 applications.

Mr. RAY BRADY (Bureau of Land Management): If in fact we processed all the existing applications that we have right now, it would be about a million acres.

SCHALCH: He says that's four times the size of the tract set aside for oil and gas exploration.

Mr. BRADY: And it's brand new; we have not completed environmental studies previously.

SCHALCH: And they want to study the impact on endangered species. Energy analyst Nathaniel Bullard perceives other potential hurdles.

Mr. BULLARD: You could build the most beautiful, perfect carbon-free generating plant in the world, but without wires, electricity goes nowhere.

SCHALCH: To string them, utilities might have to get past opposition from landowners and environmental groups. Still, Bullard says, with enough mirrors, tubes and wires, you could theoretically provide enough solar power for most of the nation, and that's not science fiction.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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