A Tour of the Copper Mountain Solar Complex

There’s a lot of talk about energy right now in our state, as well as the land usage in the Eldorado Valley and elsewhere. The long-term leases from the solar companies are a very important part of the Boulder City revenue. So I thought it might be interesting for you all to get a behind-the-scenes tour of one of our solar plants out in the valley. How exactly is all this electricity created and what goes into the process?

I contacted Justin Hawkins, the Operations and Maintenance Manager out at the Copper Mountain Solar Complex and asked if he’d be willing to give us all a tour, and he was thrilled to do so!

(Disclaimer: I’m not super scientific myself. I put the key in the ignition and turn on my car. Its magic to me how it works, I just do what needs to be done for maintenance. So as you can see, I’m not going to try to get too technical here, but I did find this all fascinating…)

This one solar complex creates enough electricity to power 200,000 homes. It sits on 4,000 acres of land in the Eldorado Valley and has about 4.3 million solar panels.

The facility has been built in phases (4 in all so far) and the first one came on line in 2010, with the rest following in 2012, 2015 and 2016 respectively. What I enjoyed the most about my tour with Justin was learning a bit about how they work.

The mostly south-facing panels collect the sunlight and convert them into electrical energy (magic!) and they’re all hooked together in ‘strings’ or groups of panels. The energy at that point is in what is called “DC” power, (think a battery) but needs to be converted into “AC” power, which is what our homes run on.

There is a bit of loss of that power in the conversion process – about 15%. This power loss is something they continue to make improvements to minimize, but for right now that’s the math they work with, so they do overbuild slightly to accommodate for that.

Then, to push the power further towards the grid they have to step up the voltage, so it goes next to a ‘transformer’ out in the field of panel modules. Then the power is ready to be pushed to their ‘mega plant’.

The mega-plant at Copper Mountain Solar 3 contains 10 blocks of the collected energy, each one with 34,500 volts of energy. To ready it for long distance travel, (200 miles) they again increase the voltage, but also decrease the amperage. This helps to, again, reduce power leakage. So they really bump up that voltage to 525,000 volts of power and send it to the power lines. Further down in the Eldorado Valley the power then joins the main grid for transfer to Southern California.

All of this is managed by Justin and his crew of only 15 people, counting himself. They repair and maintain the huge complex as well as its grounds, roads and infrastructure, such as the flood control areas, plus deal with the wild life. Justin says these solar panels are safe and don’t harm any of the wildlife or birds, but the snakes do like to curl up in the rocks near some of the transformer stations. (Eek!)

More changes lie ahead. One other company is beginning their construction of another solar plant nearby, and Copper Mountain may indeed open up a 5th phase down the way. But that remains to be seen based upon the state vote this November and a variety of other unknowns. Hope this was interesting for you all!

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