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August 30, 2015

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Six questions for Robert Boehm

Director, Center for Energy Research at UNLV

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Sam Morris

Robert Boehm, director of UNLV’s Center for Energy Research, holds a coil of fiber optics from a hybrid solar lighting system last month.

Robert Boehm is director of the Center for Energy Research at UNLV and has been researching solar power for 40 years. Boehm was recently honored by the local chapter of the American Solar Energy Society, Solar NV.

Would the Nevada Test Site work for a solar project?

The Defense Department says a power plant would interfere with communications at Nellis Air Force Base. That highlights something that’s an impediment to renewable energy in Nevada. The federal government owns most of our land.

What research is your department doing on the solar collectors outside your building on Flamingo?

We have a solar collector that may yield some of the highest conversion rates of sunlight to electricity ever. Units here already convert 30 percent. Units on residential rooftops might convert between 8 and 15 percent. Some units at Nellis Air Force Base get up to 20 percent.

Are you disappointed that so few homes in the valley have solar panels?

I am, although we’re moving in the right direction. They didn’t really start to appear until a few years ago, when the state passed a law requiring Nevada Power and Sierra Pacific Power companies to buy a percentage of their power from solar arrays. As the price of photo voltaics goes down and the price of electricity goes up, we’ll see a crossover point where solar will be cheaper.

Will most new solar panels be on rooftops or at large power plants?

Concentrated solar power plants are very dependent upon federal tax credits that lapse at the end of this year. If they’re not renewed, it will have a chilling effect on the industry.

What will the biggest advancement be over the next decade?

We’ll see less expensive PV cells, including some that are basically roofing tiles that act as solar collectors. We also will see large, concentrating solar power systems. Storage is crucial. I think we’ll have the ability to generate power 24 hours a day within the next five years.

Could a 100-square-mile patch of Nevada really power the whole country?

It’s very true, but there are drawbacks. The federal government owns most of the land. You would need major power lines, and the farther you transmit power over those lines, the more you lose. If you had to do it today with existing power lines, it would be a big task, but within five to 10 years it will be more realistic.

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