Tuesday, March 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Despite covering more than 450 acres of land near Boulder City, the panels that make up the Copper Mountain Solar plant — nearly 1 million of them — are easy to miss when driving on nearby U.S. 95.
What looks from afar like a mirage in the middle of the desert is actually one of the largest operating fields of photovoltaic solar panels in the country, and on Wednesday the nation will get a close look at the site when President Barack Obama stops there as part of a four-state tour promoting his energy policies.
Owned by California-based Sempra Generation, Copper Mountain Solar went online in 2009 and was expanded in 2010.
The Sun spoke with Sempra spokesman Scott Crider to learn more about the Copper Mountain installation President Obama will visit Wednesday:
Why Boulder City?
Boulder City was founded in conjunction with the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, and its current population is around 15,000 people. Its economy relies heavily on tourism. But the town has the potential to be reborn as a hub for renewable energy, Crider said, because of the large amount of available land in the city, the nearly year-round sun it receives and easy access to transmission lines from the dam.
“In other desert regions, you may have to build a long-distance transmission line to connect it to the grid. That has environmental impacts; that has increased costs,” Crider said during an October interview. “There are few places in the world that are better suited for this than Boulder City.”
So far, two commercial solar fields are up and running in Boulder City, with five more potential projects in the planning phases.
For more: The history of Hoover Dam
How big is it?
On Wednesday, Obama will visit Copper Mountain Solar 1, the first of three projects Sempra has planned for Boulder City. The panels at Solar 1 produce 58 megawatts of power, enough for more than 17,000 average homes, Sempra said. The recent 48-megawatt expansion of the site, completed in 2010, cost about $141 million and created 350 temporary construction jobs. However, only five people are currently employed there full time.
Sempra has already broken ground on a planned 150-megawatt solar installation, dubbed Copper Mountain Solar 2, on land adjacent to Copper Mountain Solar 1. A third project, with a potential size of 220 megawatts, is currently in the planning stages, Crider said.
How was it paid for?
Although financed mostly with private dollars, massive solar installations like Copper Mountain Solar still rely on government incentives to defray costs and make the upfront investment feasible, Crider said.
Copper Mountain Solar 1 received about $40 million in federal investment tax credits and another $12 million from the state of Nevada in sales and property tax abatements.
Crider said the state’s investment will be recouped over time, with the project expected to generate $35 million in tax revenue over the life of its 30-year lease.
Boulder City will collect an additional $60 million over the course of the lease for renting the land to Sempra.
“That’s a consistent source of revenue that can fund police, firefighters and city parks for decades to come,” Crider said.
Where does the electricity go?
Like much of the power from the Hoover Dam, electricity generated at the Copper Mountain Solar field is used to keep the lights on in communities in Southern California.
Sempra, a wholesale power generator that sells electricity to utility companies, only builds new solar installations when there is demand, Crider said. So far, that demand has come almost entirely from California, which has some of the strictest renewable-energy standards in the country, he said.
“When any developer starts a solar- or wind-power project, what they first need to do is secure a long-term contract to be able to sell that power,” Crider said.
How does it produce power?
While there are several methods for converting solar energy into electricity — including using the heat to create steam that drives turbines — Sempra’s Copper Mountain Solar 1 uses photovoltaic panels, similar to those seen on homes and businesses throughout the valley.
“It essentially converts sunlight, the photons, directly into electricity,” Crider said.
The panels are arranged in a fixed grid and are more durable because there are no moving parts. If a panel breaks, Crider said, it’s as simple as swapping out the old panel and snapping in a new one.
The panels also use no water, an important consideration in the desert.
“Water scarcity is an issue,” Crider said. “We don’t require water to generate electricity … and that ultimately leads to lower prices for consumers.”