Some cities are just so big that it’s hard to make a noticeable dent in their capacity for pollution and fossil-fueled energy. But it’s not for lack of trying. A city like San Francisco can have nearly 2,000 solar power installations and still only get a small percentage of its electricity from solar. San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, are like a Mecca for solar power, from Silicon Valley to Berkeley to Alcatraz Island. But it’s in the tiny town of Nipton, California that we see a true solar makeover today.
Nipton announced on Thursday that it had installed enough solar power to supply a staggering 85 percent of the town’s demand for electricity. Okay, so this little town on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve has a population of 38 people, but it still may be the nation’s most solar-powered city per capita. And they’re doing it with some cutting-edge technology.
The town installed an 85-kilowatt concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) system in which rows of mirrors collect and focus solar energy onto solar cells. This increases the productivity from each solar cell by maximizing the amount of solar irradiance each receives. The mirrors and PV cells are ground-mounted and use a tracking system to follow the sun as it traverses the sky each day.
Skyline Solar is the company that designed and produced Nipton’s solar system. That design resembles parabolic trough solar thermal collectors operating on larger solar farms elsewhere in the Mojave Desert region. Many of those projects, however, remain mired in environmental controversy, while CPV projects like Nipton’s can be built in close proximity to the town and plugged directly into the grid, avoiding the high cost of constructing new transmission lines.
Concentrating photovoltaics had been a niche technology until recently due to high costs. But the continuing fall of solar panel and equipment prices is making CPV a valid option for large-scale projects. Nipton’s array may not be even close to the largest in the Mojave, but with an 85-kW array and a population of 38, each sunny day, the town produces approximately 2 kW of clean solar power for every resident. Even in tourist season, when Nipton’s population soars to about 250, that’s still about 1 kW for every three people. What other town can boast either ratio?