Learn More About Concentrating Solar Power

Concentrating Solar Power

Concentrating Solar Power 

Photo of a solar thermal power plant in California.

This solar thermal power plant located in the Mojave Desert in Kramer Junction, California, is one of nine Concentrating Solar Power plants built in the 1980s. During operation, oil in the receiver tubes collects the concentrated solar energy as heat and is pumped to a power block (in background) for conversion to steam, which then turns steam turbines for generating electricity.

Photo a a solar dish-engine system.  
Solar Dish Engine
see:  www.SolarDishEngine.com 
for more information

This solar dish engine is an electric generator that "burns" sunlight instead of gas or coal to produce electricity. The solar dish engine (above) is a solar "concentrator" and is the primary solar component of the system.  The solar dish engine collects sunlight and concentrates the sunlight  on a small area. A thermal receiver absorbs the concentrated beam of solar energy, converts it to heat, and transfers the heat to the engine/generator.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is actively involved in the research of Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). This research and development (R&D) focuses on three types of Concentrating Solar Power  technologies: trough systems, dish/engine systems, and power towers. These technologies are used in Concentrating Solar Power plants that use different kinds of mirror configurations to convert the sun's energy into high-temperature heat. The heat energy is then used to generate electricity in a steam generator.

Concentrating Solar Power plant's relatively low cost and ability to deliver power during periods of peak demand - when and where we need it - means that Concentrating Solar Power can be a major contributor to the nation's future needs for distributed sources of "carbon free energy" and "pollution free power."

DOE's Solar Energy Technologies Program works in concentrating solar power  R&D to provide clean, reliable, affordable solar thermal electricity for the nation. The program's goal is to ensure that solar thermal technologies like concentrating solar power make an important contribution to the world's growing need for "carbon free energy" and "pollution free power."

Technology Overview

Concentrating Solar Power plants produce electric power by converting the sun's energy into high-temperature heat using various mirror configurations. The heat is then channeled through a conventional generator. The plants consist of two parts: one that collects solar energy and converts it to heat, and another that converts heat energy to electricity.

Concentrating Solar Power systems can be sized for village power (10 kilowatts) or grid-connected applications (up to 100 megawatts). Some systems use thermal storage during cloudy periods or at night. Others can be combined with natural gas and the resulting hybrid power plants provide high-value, dispatchable power. These attributes, along with world record solar-to-electric conversion efficiencies, make Concentrating Solar Power an attractive renewable energy option in the Southwest and other sunbelt regions worldwide.

The Solar Resource

The solar resource for generating power from concentrating solar power systems is plentiful. For instance, enough electric power for the entire country could be generated by covering about 9 percent of Nevada—a plot of land 100 miles on a side—with parabolic trough systems.

The solar resources for generating power from Concentrating Solar Power systems is plentiful. For instance, enough electric power for the entire country could be generated by covering about 9 percent of Nevada – a plot of land 100 miles on a side – with parabolic trough systems.

The amount of power generated by a Concentrating Solar Power plant depends on the amount of direct sunlight. Like concentrating photovoltaic concentrators, these technologies use only direct-beam sunlight, rather than diffuse solar radiation.

The southwestern United States potentially offers the best development opportunity for concentrating solar power technologies in the world. There is a strong correlation between electric power demand and the solar resource due largely to air conditioning loads in the region. In fact, the Solar Electric Generating System plants operate for nearly 100% of the on-peak hours of Southern California Edison.

How Does It Work?

There are three kinds of
Concentrating Solar Power systems—troughs, dish/engines, and power towers—that are classified by how they collect solar energy.

Parabolic Trough systems:

The sun's energy is concentrated by parabolic (curved) trough-shaped reflectors onto a receiver pipe running along the inside of the curved surface. This energy heats an oil that flows through the pipe.  The heat energy is then pumped to a location where the heat energy is converted to steam and the stem then generates electricity through one or more steam turbines. 

A collector field comprises many troughs in parallel rows aligned on a north-south axis. This configuration enables the single-axis troughs to track the sun from east to west during the day to ensure that the sun is continuously focused on the receiver pipes. Individual Parabolic Trough systems currently can generate about 80 megawatts of electricity.

Parabolic Trough designs can incorporate thermal storage - setting aside the heat transfer fluid in its hot phase - allowing for electricity generation several hours into the evening. Currently, all parabolic trough plants are "hybrids," meaning they use fossil fuel to supplement the solar output during periods of low solar radiation. Typically a natural gas-fired heat or a gas steam boiler/reheater is used; troughs also can be integrated with existing coal-fired plants.

Solar Power Tower systems:

What is a Solar Power Tower and How Does it Work?

A power tower converts sunshine into clean electricity for the world’s electricity grids. The technology utilizes many large, sun-tracking mirrors (heliostats) to focus sunlight on a receiver at the top of a tower. A heat transfer fluid heated in the receiver is used to generate steam, which, in turn, is used in a conventional turbine-generator to produce electricity. Early power towers (such as the Solar One plant) utilized steam as the heat transfer fluid; current designs (including Solar Two, pictured) utilize molten nitrate salt because of its superior heat transfer and energy storage capabilities. Individual commercial plants will be sized to produce anywhere from 50 to 200 MW of electricity.

What are the Benefits of Solar Power Towers?

Solar power towers offer large-scale, distributed solutions to our nation’s energy needs, particularly for peaking power. Like all solar technologies, they are fueled by sunshine and do not release greenhouse gases. They are unique among solar electric technologies in their ability to efficiently store solar energy and dispatch electricity to the grid when needed — even at night or during cloudy weather. A single 100-megawatt power tower with 12 hours of storage needs only 1000 acres of otherwise non-productive land to supply enough electricity for 50,000 homes. Throughout the sunny Southwest, millions of acres are available with solar resources that could easily produce solar power at the scale of hydropower in the Northwest U. S.

What is the Status of Power Tower Technology?

Power towers enjoy the benefits of two successful, large-scale demonstration plants. The 10-MW Solar One plant near Barstow, CA, demonstrated the viability of power towers, producing over 38 million kilowatt-hours of electricity during its operation from 1982 to 1988. The Solar Two plant was a retrofit of Solar One to demonstrate the advantages of molten salt for heat transfer and thermal storage. Utilizing its highly efficient molten-salt energy storage system, Solar Two successfully demonstrated efficient collection of solar energy and dispatch of electricity, including the ability to routinely produce electricity during cloudy weather and at night. In one demonstration, it delivered power to the grid 24 hours per day for nearly 7 straight days before cloudy weather interrupted operation.

The successful conclusion of Solar Two sparked worldwide interest in power towers. As Solar Two completed operations, an international consortium, led by the U. S. (with technical support from Sandia National Laboratories), formed to pursue power tower plants worldwide, especially in Spain (where special solar premiums make the technology cost-effective), but also in Egypt, Morocco, and Italy. Their first commercial power tower plant is planned to be four times the size of Solar Two (about 40 MW equivalent, utilizing storage to power a 15MW turbine up to 24 hours per day).

This industry is also actively pursuing opportunities to build a similar plant in our desert Southwest, where a 30 to 50 MW plant would take advantage of the Spanish design and production capacity to reduce costs, while providing much needed peaking capacity for the Western grid. The first such plant would cost in the range of $100M and produce power for about 15¢/kWh. While still somewhat higher in cost than conventional technologies in the peaking market, the cost differential could be made up with modest green power subsidies and political support, jump-starting this technology on a path to 7¢/kWh power with the economies of scale and engineering improvements of the first few plants. It would, at that point, provide clean power as economically as more conventional technologies.

The Solar Dish Engine project will evaluate the performance of the “critical” parts of the Stirling engine and develop the next-generation of the 25 kW Solar Dish Engine System. 

Solar Dish Engines

What is a Solar Dish-Engine System?

A Solar Dish Engine is an electric generator that “burns” sunlight instead of gas or coal to produce electricity. The major parts of a system are the solar concentrator and the power conversion unit. Descriptions of these subsystems and how they operate are presented below.

The dish, which is more specifically referred to as a concentrator, is the primary solar component of the system. It collects the solar energy coming directly from the sun (the solar energy that causes you to cast a shadow) and concentrates or focuses it on a small area. The resultant solar beam has all of the power of the sunlight hitting the dish but is concentrated in a small area so that it can be more efficiently used. Glass mirrors reflect ~92% of the sunlight that hits them, are relatively inexpensive, can be cleaned, and last a long time in the outdoor environment, making them an excellent choice for the reflective surface of a solar concentrator. The dish structure must track the sun continuously to reflect the beam into the thermal receiver.

The power conversion unit includes the thermal receiver and the engine/generator. The thermal receiver is the interface between the dish and the engine/generator. It absorbs the concentrated beam of solar energy, converts it to heat, and transfers the heat to the engine/generator. A thermal receiver can be a bank of tubes with a cooling fluid, usually hydrogen or helium, which is the heat transfer medium and also the working fluid for an engine. Alternate thermal receivers are heat pipes wherein the boiling and condensing of an intermediate fluid is used to transfer the heat to the engine.

This 25 kW Dish-Stirling System now in operation in Arizona 

The engine/generator system is the subsystem that takes the heat from the thermal receiver and uses it to produce electricity. The most common type of heat engine used in dish-engine systems is the Stirling engine. A Stirling engine uses heat provided from an external source (like the sun) to move pistons and make mechanical power, similar to the internal combustion engine in your car. The mechanical work, in the form of the rotation of the engine’s crankshaft, is used to drive a generator and produce electrical power.

In addition to the Stirling engine, concentrating photovoltaic technologies are also being evaluated as possible future power conversion unit technologies. A photovoltaic conversion system is not actually an engine, but a semi-conductor array, in which the sunlight is directly converted into electricity.

Small photovoltaic solar dish conversion system.

What are the markets for Solar Dish-Engines?

Solar dish engines are being developed for use in emerging global markets for distributed generation, green power, remote power, and grid-connected applications. Individual units, ranging in size from 9 to 25 kilowatts, can operate independent of power grids in remote sunny locations to pump water or to provide electricity for people living in remote areas. Largely because of their high efficiency and “conventional” construction, the cost of dish-engine systems is expected to compete in distributed markets.

The Advanced Dish Development System is a 10 kW water pumping system.

Opportunities are emerging for the deployment of dish-engine systems in the Southwest U.S. Many states are adopting green power requirements in the form of “portfolio standards” and renewable energy mandates. While the potential markets in the U.S. are large, the size of developing worldwide markets is immense. The International Energy Agency projects an increased demand for electrical power worldwide more than doubling installed capacity. More than half of this is in developing countries and a large part is in areas with good solar resources, limited fossil fuel supplies, and no power distribution network. The potential payoff for dish-engine system developers is the opening of these immense global markets for the export of power generation systems.

Experience gained with Solar Two has established a foundation which will lead to the first commercial Concentrating Photovoltaic Power Plant

Business and Market Opportunities

With one of the best direct normal insolation resources anywhere on earth, the southwestern states are poised to reap large and as yet largely uncaptured economic benefits from this important natural resource. California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico are each exploring policies that will nurture the development Concentrated Solar Power Technologies..

In addition to the Concentrating Solar Power projects under way in this country, a number of projects are being developed in India, Egypt, Morocco, and Mexico. In addition, independent power producers are in the early stages of design and development for potential parabolic trough power projects in Greece (Crete) and Spain. Given successful deployment of one or more of these initial markets, additional project opportunities are expected in these and other regions.

One key competitive advantage of Concentrating Solar Power systems is their close resemblance to most of the power plants operated by the nation's power industry. Concentrating solar power technologies utilize many of the same technologies and equipment used by conventional central station power plants, simply substituting the concentrated power of the sun for the combustion of fossil fuels to provide the energy for conversion into electricity. This "evolutionary" aspect—as distinguished from "revolutionary" or "disruptive"—results in easy integration into today's central station–based electric utility grid. It also makes concentrating solar power technologies the most cost-effective solar option for the production of large-scale electricity generation.

Analysts predict the opening of specialized niche markets in this country for the solar power industry over the next 5 to 10 years. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that by 2005 there will be as much as 500 megawatts of concentrating solar power capacity installed worldwide.

What Does It Cost?

Concentrating Solar Power technologies currently offer the lowest-cost solar electricity for large-scale power generation (10 megawatt-electric and above). Current technologies cost $2–$3 per watt. This results in a cost of solar power of 9¢–12¢ per kilowatt-hour. New innovative hybrid systems that combine large concentrating solar power plants with conventional natural gas combined cycle or coal plants can reduce costs to $1.5 per watt and drive the cost of solar power to below 8¢ per kilowatt hour.

Advancements in the technology and the use of low-cost thermal storage will allow future concentrating solar power plants to operate for more hours during the day and shift solar power generation to evening hours. Future advances are expected to allow solar power to be generated for 4¢–5¢ per kilowatt-hour in the next few decades.



Concentrated Solar Power

Concentrated Solar Power - CSP





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