National Geographic : 2009 Sep
• Valiants (sung to the tune of the Beach Boys "Barbara Ann"). Carter, true to his word, put solar water heaters on the White House roof. During the next few years, two large elds of parabolic troughs, SEGS I and II (for Solar Electric Generating Station) were installed about 160 miles southwest of Las Vegas, near Daggett, California. ey were followed by seven more plants nearby, at Kramer Junction and beside waterless Harper Lake. e plants are still operating--- about a million mirrors in all on some 1,600 acres with a combined power of 354 megawatts. From afar they look like mirages. e momentum didn t last. As the economy adjusted to the Ira- nian oil shock, fuel prices fell. With the sense of urgency reduced, along with the research dollars, solar remained a minor factor in the energy equation. e SEGS plants were still being built when President Ronald Reagan took the solar water heaters o the White House roof. e rst solar revolution zzled. Two decades later, a new solar revolution may be ready to begin. , the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado---the government s primary research center for solar, wind, hydrogen, and other alter- native fuels---is bracing for a resurgence. When I visited last fall, a new research campus and headquarters were under construction against the side of a mountain outside Golden. Five acres of photo- voltaic panels on top of the mesa will feed the labs and o ces below. at may be just the beginning. Once treated by the government as something of a stepchild, NREL is bene ting from the extra money the Obama Administration is devoting to renewable energy. "Right now solar is such a small fraction of U.S. electricity production that it s measured in tenths of a percent," said Robert Hawsey, an associate director of the lab. "But that s expected to grow. Ten to 20 percent of the nation s peak electricity demand could be provided by solar energy by 2030." But not without government help (see story, page 52). Nevada Solar One would never have been built if the state had not set a deadline requiring utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015. (More than two dozen states now have "renewable-portfolio standards," and earlier this year Con- gress was debating a federal one.) During peak demand---a hot a ernoon in Las Vegas, when production costs are highest---the solar plant s electricity is almost as cheap as that of its gas- red neighbor. But that s only because a 30 percent federal tax credit helped o set its construction costs. Aiming to bring down costs and reduce the need for incentives, NREL s engineers are studying mirrors made from lightweight poly- mers instead of glass and receiving tubes that will absorb more sun- light and lose less heat. ey re also working on solar power s biggest problem: how to store some of the heat produced during daylight If photovoltaic panels covered just three-tenths of a percent of the United States, a 100-by-100-mile square, they could power the entire country.