Construction Begins On Massive Nevada Solar Plant That Will Power 80,000 Homes

CREDIT: shutterstock

President Obama speaks at the Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility in Nevada.

President Obama speaks at the Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility in 2012.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Out in the Nevada desert, construction has begun on what will be the largest polycrystalline solar project in the world. The 250-megawatt (MW) Copper Mountain 3 solar plant is the third phase of the landmark Copper Mountain Solar complex, currently one of the largest photovoltaic (PV) solar plants in the U.S.

Slated for completion in 2015, Copper Mountain 3 will generate enough electricity to power approximately 80,000 homes, according to Sempra U.S. Gas and Power. The plant will span 1,400 acres of desert in Boulder City and is located near existing power plants and transmission lines.

Why are there transmission lines so far out in the desert? Because Boulder City essentially served as a government reservation during the Great Depression for the thousands of men who came to build Hoover Dam. Right now, the city is struggling and the growth of the solar industry is providing a critical boost to the local economy. Sempra estimates the Copper Mountain 3 project will create 300 construction jobs and, even more importantly for the city, bring in much-needed revenue.

As Tom Foreman reported for CNN in 2011, renting its land to solar developers like Sempra brought in $2.5 million, or eleven percent of the city’s general fund.

Fifteen years ago, the town bought up vast amounts of land to protect itself from the sprawling reach of neighboring Las Vegas. As luck would have it, the purchase included all the land around the big transmission lines leading to the dam, and now, they are leasing that property to Sempra and others who want to tap into them.

Developers are also crediting the foresight of Nevada’s leaders in attracting solar investment. “Our hat’s off to the leadership in the state of Nevada,” said Jeffrey W. Martin, president and CEO of Sempra at a dedication ceremony for Copper Mountain 2 in March. “This state is a shining example of how a pro-growth business climate continues to attract clean energy investments.”

Copper Mountain 3 will use polycrystalline solar panels. As RTCC explains, “Out of the main types of solar panels available on the market, polycrystalline is the most cost-effective and can be identified by its square shape and chequered appearance.”

“This is the largest single installation using polycrystalline modules that is currently proposed, permitted and under construction, with PPA and financing in place. As such, it is a first using this technology in a single location of this size,” Mark Mendenhall, president of Trina Solar Americas told RTCC.

While the U.S. has lagged behind nations such as Germany — where the solar industry is growing at an unprecedented rate, despite the country’s comparative lack of sunshine — projects like Copper Mountain demonstrate the enormous potential for developing solar power plants in sun-drenched regions like the Nevada desert.

Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), recently told Greentech Media, “Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything.”

In the first quarter of 2013, 723 MW of solar PV capacity was installed in the U.S., a 33 percent increase over the first quarter of 2012, according to new research by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Utility-scale installations like Copper Mountain more than doubled year-over-year as 318 MW came online in the first quarter of 2013. The U.S. now has over 8,500 MW of cumulative installed solar electric capacity, enough to power more than 1.3 million average American homes. And prices are falling rapidly — the report found that the average price of a solar panel has declined by 60 percent since the beginning of 2011.