TONOPAH, Nev. -- Clean energy projects have, like everything else, become politically sensitive in this election year.
A loan guarantee program used to fund large-scale energy projects in the West has been killed by the House because, critics say, it did not produce enough jobs.
But near the town of Tonopah, the last energy project to receive such a loan, is producing plenty of jobs, and by next year, will also be producing electricity. The plant is expected to power up to 75,000 homes during peak electricity periods.
The buzz is palpable at the Crescent Dunes Solar Plant under construction north of Tonopah. In the past six months, oceans of concrete have been poured to create a ring of massive foundations surrounding a 600-foot tall tower that would not be out of place in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. 500 feet above the ground, special workers dangle from slim ropes. Here, the argument about whether green energy creates jobs is long over.
"With the few hundred workers we have on site over the next few months, we'll be hitting over 500 people on site, and the town is really starting to see the activity," said Brian Painter of Solar Reserve.
At the assembly plant, 10,000 heliostats will be built with an estimated 80 per day rolling off an assembly line. As a solar thermal power tower plant, a sea of high-tech mirrors will surround the tower like an army to concentrate the power of the sun on the top.
When this fires up next spring, anyone driving by will see something like a glowing, white-hot spear of concrete. Molten salt will continue to generate electricity – about 500,000 megawatt hours annually -- even when the sun is down.
"This is a huge, massive project, the first of its kind in size and technology," Painter said. "It's the technology behind it, U.S. technology, and it's a demonstration to the world."
The hundreds of construction jobs are already rippling through Tonopah, adding to an unexpected housing crunch. Company executives have lived in the stately Mizpah Hotel for more than a year. Once the plant is built, it will support 45 permanent jobs and a $10 million budget, both huge numbers for a rural town.
"Absolutely, it's big for us," said James Eason, Tonopah town manager.
Eason said this sort of project is what Tonopah needs to break its boom-and-bust reputation.
"They are long term jobs, and that's what we want," he said. "Our economy has always been up-and-down, and we are trying to change that by diversifying our economy."
Painter said the rest of the world is already paying attention, sending experts to Tonopah to check out the solar plant. If all goes well, the United States could export the technology to the rest of the world.
The solar plant, however, was made possible by federal loan guarantees. No loan, no project. No jobs. That program, though, was killed by Congress a few months ago, a victim of election year hyperpolitics. Solar Reserve CEO Kevin Smith said he hopes Washington will reconsider once tempers cool down.
"(The U.S.) has spent tremendous amounts of money on subsidies for nuclear and oil and natural gas," Smith said. "Hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars over the last decades on conventional energy and I think we have to look at what the solutions are going forward."
Solar Reserve signed a long-term contract to sell electricity to NV Energy, which means it would be able to pay back the loan, along with $300 million in interest payments to the government.
At the plant site, there's no debate whether loans for green energy create jobs. The question is whether other entrepreneurs will ever get the same chance.
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