Calif. turns to Mojave Desert for new era of green energy

(CBS News) MOJAVE DESERT -- From a distance it looks like a shimmering blue lake in the bleak Mojave Desert. But that mirage is really a mirror - 170,000 of them. They're called heliostats.

"The total project will power 140,000 California homes, so one way to look at it is one heliostat powers one home," says Tom Doyle, the CEO of NRG, the company heading this massive solar project.

"In fact, this is the largest concentrated solar thermal project in the world," Doyle said.

Conventional solar panels capture the sun's energy. These mirrors reflect it onto a 450-foot tall tower. Inside is a boiler which then heats to 1,000 degrees. Water is turned into steam that powers a turbine and creates electricity, which will likely be sent to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Doyle says the project is displacing 400,000 tons per year of C02 by using solar energy in lieu of fossil fuel capacity.

The solar installation will help towards California's goal of getting one third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But it's not cheap - this project cost $2.2 billion. It's privately funded by several companies including Google, which invested $168 million. The project is backed by a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee and they lease the land from the government.

The land was also home to the desert tortoise, a protected species. It cost the project's backers $22 million to hire biologists, purchase conservation land and relocate about 200 tortoises into pens on the property. But they feel it's worth it because this type of solar plant could eventually be replicated in the desert Southwest and in the Middle East.

"So it's happening, it's real, and this really is today's technology from an energy perspective," Doyle said.

Technology that's no longer elusive even if it appears to be an illusion.