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In Nevada, Solar Power on a Massive Scale

A crew installs mirrors at the Nevada Solar One site in the desert south of Las Vegas.
Ted Robbins, NPR
A crew installs mirrors at the Nevada Solar One site in the desert south of Las Vegas.

When the price of oil is high, talk turns to alternative forms of energy, including wind, biofuels and solar. One kind of solar energy isn't getting much publicity. But solar thermal power is quietly becoming a significant source of electricity in the Southwest.

In the desert south of Las Vegas, crews working on a project called Nevada Solar One are assembling a parabolic trough of curved mirrors connected in a huge array.

At the center, a closed-loop tube will be filled with oil that will be heated by the sun. The hot oil will flow around the 400-acre project and into a building where it will turn water into steam. It, in turn, will turn a steam turbine, which will make electricity.

Solar PV, or photovoltaics — panels on roofs — are what most people think of when they think of solar power. The largest PV array in the world, located in Germany, produces 10 megawatts of electricity. But Nevada Solar One will produce 64 megawatts — enough to power 40,000 homes in the Las Vegas area during the hottest part of the day.

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As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.