A place in the sun

Driving into Tonopah a few Fridays ago, one had a strange sensation. A sensation that one usually doesn't equate with sleepy, dusty, ornery old Tonopah. A sensation that … well, jeez, somethin's goin' on.

The first tip-off is an obvious one. The existence of the “man camp” on the north end of town, one of those telltale insta-ghettoes of trailer/condo housing that can be set up in a flash when a sudden influx of labor overwhelms a place. There were quite a few of these tidy little units stacked up along Highway 95. So what's all the hubbub about?

Meet the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project. Lo and behold, this one just may be a game-changer in a 21st century that is wide open to bold new ideas in the domain of alternative, clean, sane energy creation. You see that gigonderous tower standing out there in the middle of the raw desert, about 25 miles north of Tonopah? That ain't no new traffic control tower for secret stealth jets or the world's biggest cell tower from Verizon. That's the centerpiece of this project, a 550-foot-tall tower that will allow for the creation, transmission and utilization of a product called molten salt. With this stuff, energy can be stored as heat during the night, which means that solar power created during daylight hours can be distributed during darkness, and that's a trait that many power companies seem to find quite desirable.

So Crescent Dunes has some serious potential to be hot, hip, and happening, and it's on a lot of radars. A whole bunch of folks will be looking on with great interest as construction crews finish and the 17,000 mirrors that will collect the heat of the sun and make salt molten get cranked up. If this hot goop works the way it's supposed to, this one plant in the middle of the boondocks will produce 500 gigawatts of electricity a year, which is the equivalent to 12 percent of the juice that annually pours out of the transformers of Hoover Dam. Those are numbers capable of making a very solid and positive impression. The project, as you can imagine, is doing wonders for Tonopah's economy. Right now, 600 guys are out there building this extraordinary facility, and when the operation is up and running (sometime this summer), there will be 45 full-time jobs at the CDSEP, overseeing the machinery of molten salt. The owner of this project is a company called Solar Reserve. The budget for this plant should come in at around $900 million.

So is this a first look at something that will be utterly huge in terms of Nevada's eventual re-positioning of itself? Will this extreme new technology allow Nevada to morph from 20th century Sin Country to 21st century Sun Country? I'm down! If molten Morton's is where it is at in the near future, let's not be slow. Let's fire up about 47 of these suckers throughout the state and start blazing brave new trails into a brave new world.