Solar Thermal Technology on an Industrial Scale
Our sun produces 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 watts of energy every second and the belief is that it will last for another 5 billion years. The United States reached peak oil production in 1970, and there is no telling when global oil production will peak, but it is accepted that when it is gone the party is over. The sun, however, is the most reliable and abundant source of energy.
Solar Thermal vs. Photovoltaic
It is important to understand that solar thermal technology is not the same as solar panel, or
photovoltaic, technology. Solar thermal electric energy generation concentrates the light from the sun to create heat, and that heat is used to run a heat engine, which turns a generator to make electricity.
The working fluid that is heated by the concentrated sunlight can be a liquid or a gas. Different working fluids include water, oil, salts, air, nitrogen, helium, etc. Different engine types include steam engines, gas turbines, Stirling engines, etc. All of these engines can be quite efficient, often between 30% and 40%, and are capable of producing 10’s to 100’s of megawatts of power.
Photovoltaic, or PV energy conversion, on the other hand, directly converts the sun’s light into electricity. This means that solar panels are only effective during daylight hours because storing electricity is not a particularly efficient process. Heat storage is a far easier and efficient method, which is what makes solar thermal so attractive for large-scale energy production.
Heat can be stored during the day and then converted into electricity at night. Solar thermal plants that have storage capacities can drastically improve both the economics and the dispatchability of solar electricity.
Competing with Fossil Fuels
Solar thermal power currently leads the way as the most cost-effective solar technology on a large scale. It currently beats other PV systems, and it also can beat the cost of electricity from fossil fuels such as natural gas. In terms of low-cost and high negative environmental impact, nothing competes with coal.
But major solar thermal industry players such as eSolar, Brightsource, or Abengoa, have already beaten the price of photovoltaic and natural gas, and they have plans to beat the price of coal in the near future.
With an increasingly industrializing planet, the leaders in solar thermal technology have an ever-growing market. The issue is, and will always be, how to make solar thermal technology more economical. There are currently two methods for solar thermal collection. The first is line focus collection.
The second is point focus collection. Line focus is less expensive, technically less difficult, but not as efficient as point focus. The basis for this technology is a parabola-shaped mirror, which rotates on a single axis throughout the day tracking the sun. Point focus technique requires a series of mirrors surrounding a central tower, also known as a power tower. The mirrors focus the sun’s rays onto a point on the tower, which then transfers the heat into more usable energy.
Point focus, though initially costlier and technically more nuanced, outshines line focus when results are concerned. The point of focus in a line focus mirror array can only reach temperatures around 250° C.
That is a sufficient temperature to run a steam turbine, but when compared to the 500° C
and higher temperatures that point focus can reach, the extra effort and cost is balanced out by its greater efficiency capability. High efficiency matters because it drives down both the land usage, and the effective cost per kWhr of the plant.
Major Solar Thermal Players
Spain and Australia are the current leading countries in solar thermal energy production. Spain already produces a large portion of their electricity though their solar thermal facilities, some built by solar thermal powerhouses such as Acciona and Abengoa – the creator of the PS10 and soon PS20.
The California based solar thermal company, eSolar, and the Israeli company, Brightsource, are fast growing competitors. Abengoa is opening the first power tower to be used for commercial energy production. eSolar is working with Southern California Edison to use solar thermal technology to generate 245 MW of power. Similarly, BrightSource has contracts with
Pacific Gas and Electric Company to bring even more solar thermal generated power to California.
Another challenge for solar thermal is the amount of space required for efficient production of energy. Not only space, but space that gets a consistent amount of direct sunlight. Solar thermal power plants typically require 1/4 to 1 square mile or more of land. One silver lining of global climate change and human impact on the land is that more and more farmland is becoming unsuitable for agricultural production. This land, presumably originally chosen for its sun exposure, begs to be used for solar thermal energy production. Utilization of desertification can prove to be a boon for solar thermal real estate procurement and growth.
With solar thermal technologies being developed and advanced by companies such as eSolar,
Brightsource, Abengoa, Acciona, Ausra and Schott Solar, the world has a new alternative. The benefits of eliminating coal from our energy diet are many. By not burning fossil fuels, countries can be truly energy independent.
Also, by limiting, and hopefully eliminating, carbon emissions, a nation’s pollution
will not be windswept into another nation’s territories, further cementing the concept of
independence. Solar thermal plants are being built around the world, and many new planned plants are in the works.
Solar thermal is the current solar electricity cost champion, but more improvements are needed to beat the cost of the lowest-cost fossil fuels in a legislative climate without subsidies or carbon taxes.