Huge Solar Tower Being Built to Power Homes - 8 News NOW

Huge Solar Tower Being Built to Power Homes

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LAS VEGAS -- A new billion dollar power plant under construction in the desert north of Tonopah, Nevada may represent the best hope for the green energy revolution touted by politicians and environmentalists.

For all it's promise, critics do not want federal money to be used to help solar companies get started, and a program of loan guarantees recently ended, possibly forever.

It is pretty obvious something big is underway just outside of Tonopah, the geographic heart of Nevada. A 600 foot shaft of concrete looks like it was dropped into the desert by aliens.

When it is operational, the literal tower of power will be surrounded by an ocean of mirrors, called heliostats, that will bombard the tower from every direction with the concentrated, blazing hot energy of the sun.

Nevada's Clean Energy Potential

"Throughout the field around here, that will be in the order of 10,000 heliostats. They will concentrate the sun onto the top of the tower," said Solar Reserve Construction Manager Brian Painter.

The intense heat will funnel into tubes filled with molten salt, which will continue to generate heat and steam even when the sun is not shining, thus overcoming one of the principal weaknesses of other solar energy systems. Rivers of lava-like salt will function like huge batteries, creating electricity whether the sun is shining or not.

"For all intents and purposes, this plant is a regular power plant. The steam cycle is the same as any power plant out there," said Painter. "The only difference is, our energy source is the sun."

The power plant, dubbed Crescent Dunes, will be the largest of it's kind in the world, but will be the last solar plant to be built with federal loan guarantees. That program has now expired and with a stalemate in Washington, it isn't likely to be renewed.

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Solar Reserve CEO Kevin Smith says that while the collapse of Solyndra became exhibit one for critics of government help for green energy, his company will pay back every cent once Crescent Dunes is operational.

"Not only do we have to pay the loan back, but we will end up paying $300 million in interest to the federal government just from our project. So it's a revenue generating activity for the government," he said.

Smith says loan guarantees for green energy are far less onerous for taxpayers than the huge subsidies that continue for energy companies that don't exactly need taxpayer help.

Interactive Map of Green Energy Projects in Southern Nevada

"We've spent tremendous amounts of money on subsidies for nuclear and oil and natural gas -- hundreds of billions of dollars," he said. "Congress voted on taking $2 billion of oil subsidies away and that got voted down. So those $2 billion subsidies still exist for oil when the top five oil companies make about $130 billion in profits for 2011."

The long term arguments for solar are as strong as ever -- it is simply cleaner and safer than fossil fuel power and is an inexhaustible energy source not controlled by a foreign cartel. However, solar has fallen far short on the two issues that matter most to the public -- jobs and cost.

Although Congress allowed the loan guarantee program to end, a new survey shows 64 percent of Americans strongly support continued government assistance for green energy.

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