World's Largest Solar Plant Opens in Nevada's Mojave Desert

The tortoises are tucked away in the man-made dens created for them by workers of the world's newest and largest solar power plant. They don't seem to mind. So, It's looking like the massive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which sprawls across five square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, is a win-win for both desert critters and American citizens.

After several years of legal and regulatory wrangling over issues like relocating federally protected tortoises and assessing the potential impact on the Mojave milkweed plant, the $2.2 billion complex officially opened this week. Owned by NRG Energy, Google and BrightSource Energy, the complex of three generating units is capable of producing upward of 400 megawatts of solar energy. That's enough to power 140,000 homes.

Though several larger projects are in the works, Ivanpah is being hailed as a major milestone for the US emerging (and quickly growing, according to the latest Solar Jobs Census) solar industry. Currently, solar power accounts for less than one percent of the nation's power output. But with literally thousands of projects planned or under construction, primarily across America's Southwest, that figure is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade.

Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, calls Ivanpah's opening the "dawn of a new era in power generation in the United States" and predicts the US eventually will become a global leader in solar generation.

The Ivanpah site is a prime choice for the project because it enjoys virtually unbroken sunshine for most of the year and is located near transmission lines that carry power to consumers in the region, including many in California, which must obtain a third of its electricity from solar and other renewable sources by 2020. Using solar-thermal power, some 350,000 computer-controlled, garage door-sized mirrors reflect sunlight to boilers situated atop 459-foot-high towers. Boiled water creates steam, which drives the turbines to create electricity.