Geothermal, Solar Power Unite In First Of Its Kind Facility

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu earlier this month heralded the creation of a new geothermal-solar power plant in Fallon, Nevada, which he said was “the first of its kind in the world.”

The Stillwater facility has 26 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic solar generating capacity and 33 MW of geothermal power.

Stillwater Solar

image via Nevada State Office of Energy

The plant will reportedly result in a more reliable power output since it combines the consistent base load power of geothermal with the peak capacity of solar power. Because solar only works during daylight hours, utilities currently link up solar plants with coal or natural gas plants to make up for the shortfall in solar output and to ensure a steady power supply.

The new facility was created after Enel Power installed more than 89,000 polycrystalline photovoltaic panels on a 240-acre parcel of land adjacent to their Stillwater geothermal plant, which the company opened in 2009.

Enel received final approval to install the solar plant at the site in Churchill County in August last year.

Enel said the solar power plant alone will generate around 40 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of clean energy per year, enough to meet the needs of 15,000 American households and to cut CO2 emissions of around 28,000 metric tons. By combining the two power plants in one facility, it is said to have also reduced environmental impact since it was possible for the two sites to share infrastructures such as  electrical interconnection lines.

“As the first of its kind in the world, this project demonstrates how we can tap renewable energy sources to provide clean power for American families and businesses and deploy every available source of American energy,” Energy Secretary Chu said in a statement. “Supported in part by the Recovery Act, the Fallon facility is expanding domestic renewable energy sources and helping to build the infrastructure we need to stay competitive in the global race for clean energy technologies.”

The Stillwater plant was helped out in part by $40 million in tax support under the Recovery Act for renewable energy, set up under the Obama administration to provide American companies with up front tax support up front to spur renewable energy uptake. A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [PDF] estimated that the tax program has so far helped create up to 75,000 jobs nationwide in design, construction and manufacturing and contributed $44 billion in total economic output.

The Department of Energy has marked out for development a number of geothermal sites in Nevada and Utah. Under its own research program, the department studied fourteen areas, including Stillwater. Seven of those sites currently produce electrical power. According to the department, “the research also helped utilities better judge the viability of specific geothermal systems as reliable energy sources and gave the financial sector reliable information for investing in these developing projects.”

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.