Start watching
Tending Nature show poster

Tending Nature

Start watching

Southland Sessions

Start watching

Earth Focus

Start watching

Reporter Roundup

Start watching

City Rising

Start watching

Lost LA

Start watching
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement and Special Events teams.

Video Offers a Compelling Look at Nevada's Largest Solar Plant

A worker among the heliostats at the Crescent Dunes Solar Project | Photo: Alec Ernest
A worker among the heliostats at the Crescent Dunes Solar Project | Photo: Alec Ernest, by cclarke

Big solar in the desert is controversial — and no big solar plants are more controversial than solar thermal power tower plants.

Supporters of the huge plants laud power tower thermal technology for its promise of straightforward energy storage, large potential energy generating capacity, and their symbolism as monuments to a dawning age of climate-safe power. The plants critics voice concerns about destruction of habitat to build the plants, their cost, their relative inflexibility compared to other forms of solar, and their potential damage to wildlife.

All those arguments boil down to one basic truth: Solar power tower plants are really, really big. In his short documentary on Nevada's Crescent Dunes Solar Project, filmmaker Alec Ernest vividly shows us just how big.

Crescent Dunes is a 110-megawatt power tower project northeast of Tonopah, Nevada, owned and operated by the company SolarReserve. Its 10,347 large mirrored heliostats, each of them 42 feet wide, focus solar energy to a boiler atop a 540-foot tower. There, the energy is used to heat molten salt — not table salt, but a mixture of sodium nitrite and potassium nitrite. That molten salt is then used to create steam, which drives a power-generating turbine. The advantage of molten salt? It stores heat, allowing Crescent Dunes to generate power for some time after sunset.

Online since 2015, Crescent Dunes delivers power to utility NVEnergy, which serves about half of Nevada's geographic area, and the vast majority of its population.

As Ernest shows, Crescent Dunes — the world's largest solar power tower plant with thermal storage — is a mindbogglingly large project. That palpable size will likely give both big fans of solar and foes of big solar fuel for their arguments. 

Crescent Dunes workers are dwarfed by the heliostats they built methodically and carefully, and those heliostats are dwarfed in turn by the plant's power tower.

But there's no dwarfing the palpable pride displayed by the plant workers Ernest portrays. Whether it's pride in painstakingly precise construction or in the plant's main purpose: to provide energy without burning coal or natural gas.

One of the engineers Ernest talked to sums it up succinctly. "This is the absolute best I've ever done in my life." 

Support Provided By
Support Provided By
Read More
People pull up in their vehicles for Covid-19 vaccines in the parking lot of The Forum in Inglewood, California on January 19, 2021. | FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

L.A. County Expands COVID Vaccines to Residents 65 And Older

L.A. County began scheduling COVID-19 vaccination appointments for those aged 65 and older today, but limited supplies and uncertainty about future allocations has left the inoculation effort shrouded in doubt.
Bill Kobin - hero image

Public Media and KCET Legend Bill Kobin Dies at 91

William H. “Bill” Kobin, a public media icon who helped build PBS flagship station KCET into a Los Angeles powerhouse, airing news programs like the acclaimed “Life & Times” and helping to launch Huell Howser’s career, has died.
Pupils listen to school lessons broadcast over a solar radio in Dalu village, Tana River County, Kenya, November 28, 2020. | Thomson Reuters Foundation/Benson Rioba

With Schools Shut by Pandemic, Solar Radios Keep Kenyan Children Learning

Solar-powered radios have been distributed to the poorest homes that lack electricity access, with lessons broadcast daily during the COVID-19 crisis — and perhaps beyond.