The Other Solar Energy

by Richard T. Stuebi

Ten days ago, I attended a one-day symposium on climate change solutions at Oberlin College. Speaking at the symposium was John O’Donnell of Ausra.

Ausra is a leading player in the field of concentrating solar power (CSP), which utilizes mirrors to focus sunlight on a heating element containing a fluid to produce a steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. In other words, solar thermal electricity – a field that was highly active in the 1980’s only to experience a 15+ year hiatus – is now coming back with a vengeance. Ausra claims that its CSP technology will soon be able to enable electricity production (in sunny desert climates, such as the southwestern U.S.) for about 8-10 cents/kwh.

Moreover, Mr. O’Donnell discussed how Ausra was working on integrating its CSP generation technology with thermal energy storage approaches, so that Ausra’s powerplants would be able to produce electricity not just when the sun is high in the sky — from 7 am to 6 pm — but over a time window more closely aligned to utility peak loads, which stretch from about 10 am to 8 pm. He made the interesting observation that thermal energy storage, using oils and molten salts, is many times more efficient and cost-effective than large-scale energy storage with batteries.

With all of the hype (much of which deserved) for solar photovoltaics (PV), it’s easy to forget about solar thermal approaches, and CSP particularly. Although not as universally applicable as PV, CSP can make a big dent in national energy supply, exploiting only a relatively small fraction of otherwise unusable desert land. In many cases, the gating factor for CSP deployment — just as has been the case for wind energy — will be the availability (or lack thereof) of transmission capacity to electricity load centers.

Mr. O’Donnell made the point that building roads in the U.S. was a local phenomenon subject to a patchwork of regulations and constraints — until President Eisenhower broke down the barriers with the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s. He further noted that high-voltage DC technologies now readily available — such as those offered by ABB (NYSE: ABB) — could transmit large blocks of power across the whole continent with losses of only about 11% (excluding the conversion facilities at each terminal).

We in the cleantech community haven’t talked much about it, instead focusing on the sexy/cool generation/storage/consumption technologies, but maybe it’s time to ratchet the discussion about the so-called “smart grid” up to another level.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

10 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I find it hilarious that many environmentalists are enthusiastic about photovoltaic solar, which is as primitive and un-cost effective a means of making low valued electricity as anything out there, excepting the even more primitive and environmentally obscene wind power. If you can't make power on demand, your system costs twice as much as the shills that are promoting it are claiming. The weakness of the alternative energy movement is its sheer ignorance of the elctrical grid and its requirements.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Perhaps Anonymous would like to explain how he reckons renewables can be obtained "on demand" and moreover, how we are going to overcome the inmense energy security problem that we currently face. It is all well and good to critisize anybody who is trying to do something about it. When you have constant black outs in your energy supply and have to pay ten times as much for your utilities bill, maybe you will then critisize how cleantech didnt become a reality sooner

  3. High Voltage
    High Voltage says:

    I assume that you are pro CSP and an environmentalist also. I don't understand why you criticize so hard wind and PV, they are valid solutions for some specific cases. I always thought that carbon based energy generation will be replaced by a range of green technologies, and not one grate Green Hero.Anyway, to the ones that are interested in CSP, here is a grate blog: you can find out what is it, were is being used already, a little bit of history, and some future plans for Europe.

  4. Raymond Tan
    Raymond Tan says:

    Well, in my opinion, using alternative energy of course is not cost-efficient due to the dominance of conventional way of generating electricity in our lives. During my high school project, a few photovoltaic cells, not even powerful enough to power up a TV set, costs a month of electricity bill. However, after using it, my project members discovered that as long as there is more demand to the cells, price will be lowered down, making solar energy much more affordable than using alkaline batteries or other power sources .

  5. 4Solar
    4Solar says:

    I would really like to see a blog created that focuses on solar energy financed as a utility. Don't know if anyone has seen the company called SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Corp.) but they offer Solar As A Utility to commercial and public building owners with no required capital outlay and cash flow positive from day one of operation. I think this is the way to bring solar mainstream in the US .

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