Editor’s Note: We’ve just posted an interview we did in early April 2012 with SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith about his company’s technology. You can read that here.

The gray cylinder rising 540 feet skyward in the Nevada desert looks like a giant smokestack. But it’s actually something quite different—a new kind of tower for a new kind of power plant. The literal centerpiece of the 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Plant near Tonopah, Nev., the tower was completed this month after workers toiled around the clock since early November, developer SolarReserve said.

Eventually—by the end of 2013, if all goes according to plan—the tower will receive the reflected, concentrated solar heat from thousands of giant heliostats. Some of that heat will then be stored in molten salts and used to generate power after the sun goes down or in cloudy conditions.

image via SolarReserve

“Completion of the solar power tower is a significant milestone not only for SolarReserve and our plant, but also for the solar energy industry as a whole,” Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, said in a statement. “Our U.S.-developed technology has the ability to store energy for 10-15 hours and solves the issue of intermittent power generation to the grid, the number one limitation to other solar and wind renewable energy technologies. We can deliver electricity ‘on demand’ the same way a coal, natural gas or nuclear fueled plant does – but without emitting any harmful pollution or hazardous materials.”

There are other so-called power-tower plants around the world, but none in the United States. And when Crescent Dunes is completed, it will be the largest of its type in the world, SolarReserve said.

The plant is going in on Bureau of Land Management property about midway between Las Vegas and Reno, a good deal north of where most of the other big solar projects are set to go in. There was some early opposition to the plant from the Air Force, which feared it might disrupt operations at a nearby test range. But accommodations were reached and the plant won approval from the Obama administration, then nabbed a $737 million loan guarantee through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Section 1705 program.

While SolarReserve claims a leadership role in the development of solar thermal plants that have energy-storage capability U.S., it’s not the only company moving in that direction. BrightSource, which is currently developing the Ivanpah plant in the Mojave Desert without energy storage, is eyeing using the technology at two California sites — Siberia and Sonoran West — that are “in the development stage” and could possibly go online by 2016 or so.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Abengoa—with the help of a $1.45 billion U.S. loan guarantee—is building the Solana Generating Station (pictured above). The company is going with parabolic trough technology instead of the power tower setup, but the company says it will have six hours of molten salt storage. The company is predicting the plant will be operating by 2013, producing up to 280 MW of power.