Friday, Feb. 10, 2006 | 12:33 p.m.
For travelers headed south from Las Vegas on U.S. 95 through Eldorado Valley, it will blaze on the horizon like a shimmering mirage.
In centuries past, a mirage offered thirsty, energy-sapped travelers passing through the desert a glimpse - albeit a false, ultimately bitterly disappointing one - of salvation, of life.
But there will be nothing deceiving about this brilliant sunlit image, which in a real sense will mark a path to the future and to one of life's essentials.
What will be glittering in Eldorado Valley this summer is a sea of mirrors marking the site of Nevada Solar One, a 300-acre solar thermal power plant being developed by North Carolina-based Solargenix Energy.
The largest such installation built anywhere in the world in the last 15 years, Nevada Solar One will, state officials hope, spark the emergence of a renewable energy industry in Southern Nevada.
"It's extremely important," said Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, one of the chief architects of the state's renewable energy mandate.
"You have to be able to show the public, as well as various companies, the industry overall and, especially, the financial markets, that you're for real."
After four years of planning, Solargenix on Saturday will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the plant. Next week, the first phase of construction will get under way with grading, a process expected to take a month.
As soon as late March, the company will start pouring 9,000 cement piers that will support the framework, mirrors and piping that will begin taking shape in early summer.
The final stage of construction will include a 10,000-square-foot administrative center with a visitors center and classroom. At the same time, the company will be building the power block, which includes an electric turbine and pumps. Nevada Power Co. of Las Vegas will add a substation and transmission lines.
The plant is expected to be operational by March 2007 and cost about $100 million, said Gary Bailey, regional managing director for Solargenix.
Bailey said that the location so close to the highway and the associated exposure are an added bonus.
"You can't miss it," he said. "The rows of mirrors run parallel to the road, facing east, of course. We want the exposure. We want the public, with 1,000 cars going by every day, to stop and ask questions."
The solar thermal power plant will use parabolic trough technology, in which mirrors heat a fluid to generate steam, which then turns turbines to generate power.
Similar technology was used in nine solar power plants built in California between 1984 and 1990. Those plants, located in Kramer Junction in the Mojave Desert, are expected to remain in operation for another 15 years.
Bailey said that getting a project under construction marks a significant turning point for the company.
"That's been our big challenge, building something," he said. "This is exciting."
State law mandates that Nevada's largest electric utilities - Nevada Power Co. of Las Vegas and Sierra Pacific Power Co. of Reno - generate an increasing percentage of their power from renewable resources, peaking at 20 percent by 2015.
At least one-fourth of the renewables mandated by the Legislature must come from solar power, and the Solargenix plant would bring Nevada Power into compliance with the solar piece of the mandate through 2009.
Nevada Power has entered into contracts with several developers - including Solargenix - to buy renewable power generated from new projects. The Solargenix plant will be the first in Southern Nevada to start construction.
"I think that this is going to be the catalyst," said Rebecca Wagner, energy adviser to Gov. Kenny Guinn. "One, this shows that this technology is good. Two, this reinforces that Nevada is the perfect place for solar development."
Getting to the point of building a major solar plant has taken time, with financing being a major stumbling block.
Developers have complained that investors are hesitant to put up capital for a plant that will sell power to a utility - Nevada Power - still recovering from financial problems stemming from the Western energy crisis of several years ago.
But with Nevada Power's financial condition improving, the Solargenix project could turn the tide.
"We are becoming the center of attention," said Tim Carlson, president of Powered by Renewables Corp., which announced this week plans to build a major solar photovoltaic facility in Clark County. "It's something that I think this state is going to be a leader in."
Las Vegas-based Powered by Renewables and SunEdison of Maryland said they will partner to build an 18-megawatt power plant. It would be nearly double the size of the 10-megawatt photovoltaic plant in Germany that currently ranks as the world's largest.
Photovoltaic solar plants use silicon film to collect sunlight and convert the energy into electricity.
The plant will be built on a military installation in Clark County. Carlson declined to identify the installation or its location while contracts are being completed.
Construction is expected to begin in July. The military would buy the power generated by the plant, which would be owned by Powered by Renewables and SunEdison.
Nevada Power would buy renewable energy credits from the plant in exchange for offsetting the need for fossil-fuel generated power. That transaction would also help the utility meet its state-required amount of renewable power.
Kevin Rademacher can be reached at 259-4069 or at [email protected]