Distinguished engineering professor Bob Boehm has seen drastic changes in solar power technology during his 40 years of research. The director of the Center for Energy Research at UNLV recently sat down with UNLV Impacts to discuss how solar energy supports economic development and how he hopes Nevada's renewable energy program grows.
How has solar energy evolved in your time at UNLV? I came to Las Vegas 20 years ago. Solar energy evolved very slowly those first 10 years. The only applications being used were solar-powered call boxes along the freeway as well as the black mats on houses to heat pools. Since that time, solar energy technology has been steadily increasing in intensity of application. Many houses across the valley now have solar photovoltaic (PV) methods of generating electricity. In addition, larger solar plants have been built across the valley.
Where do you see solar energy in the next 5 to 10 years? If the economy improves such that loans are more easily acquired, I think there will be big growth in plants to supply power for Nevada and surrounding states. There are a large number of sites being requested of the Bureau of Land Management for the possible installation of solar plants, but those efforts have been stymied partly by the economic situation.
I also think there will be more interest in solar domestic water heating for dishwashing and bathing. In the long run, there will be greater use of building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV). BIPV is when photovoltaic elements are incorporated, often subtly (i.e. not formal panels sticking up from the roof), in the building skin. Its use in the United States is limited; for example, using PV elements that look like roof tiles to generate electricity since the tiles are used on the house anyway. In several European countries as well as in China, work is under way for wall and window elements that generate electricity from the sunlight. A window of this design could bring in light as well as generate electricity.
What type of research is UNLV doing with solar energy? We do a lot of work with companies that are developing systems, such as Amonix, a designer and manufacturer of concentrated photovoltaic solar power systems. We have helped them evaluate and improve the design of their system by working on modifications to the mechanics of the tracking system as well as the photovoltaic portions. Two of our students investigated the thermal environment around the cells in the Amonix system. PV cells operate more efficiently when cool, and this is done passively on the Amonix system. Insights from this work have achieved cooler temperatures without any increase in cost, which has been incorporated in their current designs.
Amonix recently announced that it is opening a new facility in North Las Vegas that will bring 278 clean-energy jobs this year. How do you see solar energy supporting economic development in the area? Quite a few jobs are developing related to installing various types of solar systems, whether they are going on houses or in the desert. Unfortunately, once those projects end, installers are no longer needed. For the larger plants, there is some need for operations people but it is considerably scaled down from what it took to build the plant.
We are all hoping to see Las Vegas become a center for companies that develop solar systems. This would provide both high-tech and manufacturing jobs. There is a little problem in the perception that Las Vegas has a poor educational system, which could cause companies to seek out other areas. However, Las Vegas is a good location in terms of resources and shipping.
Are there other examples UNLV's private partnerships on renewable energy? We are working on a project with Acciona Solar, the company that built the Eldorado Valley plant. The project is funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That particular plant is typical of some older plants that were designed to run only when the sun shines. We are working to add storage of the energy produced during the day so it can be used when the sun goes down.
Nevada's abundant sunshine makes it attractive for solar energy. What is preventing the state from being the leader in renewable energy? Las Vegas is not known as a manufacturing area and there is some question about the trained workforce that exists in the city. Also, in order for Southern Nevada to be a hub for renewable energy, there needs to be more transmission grid facilities to help transport the energy.
If all things fell into place, describe Nevada's renewable energy program 20 years into the future. We would have a lot of solar plants located in various areas of the state. I think rooftops would be used more for both water heating and electricity generation. I think we also will see electric cars that use sunlight as a source for electrical energy.
The naysayers say that solar is too expensive, but the price of solar cells has been in a steady downward trend. If you look at the other sources of energy -- coal, gas, and nuclear -- their prices are generally going up. The nice thing about solar is that once the system is built, you've locked in the price. When you buy a solar system, whether for power generation or water heating or building space conditioning, you buy both the "fuel" as well as the method for converting it. You are then insulated from price increases in conventional energy sources (typically either electricity from the grid or natural gas).
Wind has not been a big factor in Nevada like it is in other states. It is now possible to create power out of lower and lower velocity winds, so that might give a boost to wind energy in Nevada.
What would happen if Nevada tapped all its renewable energy potential? We would need some place to ship it because we would not be able to use it all here. A 100-square-mile piece of land in Nevada could furnish all of the country's energy requirements.
What's UNLV's role in that? Working with the governmental agencies on everything from being an unbiased, technical arm to developing solar cells. There are also a lot of socio-economic factors that could involve other schools and departments on campus.
Environmental studies is an area that, for example, could study ways in which building solar plants that could have less impact on the flora and fauna. We also have had collaborative partnerships with the School of Architecture and the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER). On one particular project, we were looking at the impacts of large-scale solar power generation development in Southern Nevada and the CBER studied the potential impacts on the local economy.
Is renewable energy a way for Nevada to get out of the recession? I don't think anything is absolutely bulletproof from a recession. On the other hand, when you have an economy based on two industries, recessions can be long and painful. Nevada needs to diversify its economy, and energy would be very natural.