I like to think of thermal solar power as the rock star of clean energy. The technology starts off with the coolest name, the Power Tower.
The Tower is surrounded by thousands of adoring mirrors all focusing their attention on it in the center. As the mirrors build up the heat in comes the molten salt gathering in all the energy (heating up to 1,000 °F).
Then the salt exits stage-left to the green room (thermal storage stank). In these tanks none of the glory and fame is dissipated since they barely lose any heat (98% efficiency rate).
At any moment the rock stars can be called out to overwhelm their fans by turning water into steam and creating energy (via steam turbines). This means that energy can be created at night and without wind, and without requiring the use of the toxic chemicals that solar cells require.
Yeah, it’s a pretty cool technology.
The picture above is from Seville, Spain, the site of the first thermal solar installation. It will generate 20 MegaWatts and power 25,000 homes.
The technology offers an interesting twist on clean energy, using a blend of the old and new. It’s steam turbine is the same technology used in coal and nuclear power plants. Steam power is hundreds of years old going all the way back to the 18th century steamboats and railroads. The twist here is using solar energy as a heat source, i.e. solar powered.
In comparison to other clean energy technologies it definitely has a few advantages. As mentioned above it can run at nearly any time (close to 24 hours), but more importantly it doesn’t require the rare materials that solar cells need.
This is becoming more of problem than you would think. As China dominates the market, owning nearly 85% of all the world’s supplies. Putting the rest of us in the awkward territory of tariffs and reliance on the Chinese solar industry.
Further, the creation of solar cells is a notoriously dirty process. Many are even comparing the pollution between coal burning and the creation and disposal of solar cells.
With all that in mind, salt and mirrors could be our savior. We will just have to wait and see if our rock stars are one hit wonders…