With Professor Jaluria’s upcoming lecture on solar thermal power, i figured it would be nice to have some background and context. While photovoltaic systems are what most people associate with solar-derived electrical power, thermal systems are, at this point, the most efficient method for generating electricity from solar energy.
Solar thermal power generation was first looked at in the 1970’s during the oil crisis. This research resulted in the SEGS (solar energy generating systems) commercial project, which consisted of 9 different solar plant’s in California’s Mojave Desert (constructed between 1984-1989). Total capacity of the plants, which are still in operation today, is 354 MW. By comparison, the largest PV system currently operational in the world is a 20 MW facility in Spain. This, however, was the only real solar thermal electrical generation facility in the US until 2005.
2005 saw a revival of solar thermal. A company by the name of Stirling Energy Systems emerged with economically sound proposals for new solar thermal facilities. Named Top 25 Breakout Companies of 2005 by Fortune magazine, they signed contracts with Southern California Edison to develop more solar thermal facilities (500MW) in the Mojave Desert.
Most recently, California Utility PG&E signed a contract to develop 900 MW of solar thermal power over the next couple of years from Brightsource Energy.
These are not the only companies trying to get set up in the Mojave.
It seems like solar thermal is really making a splash. Some questions to think about going into Professor Jaluria’s lecture on 4/21 (for those of you in Professor Muller’s Energy Seminar):
How far can electricity be transmitted from desert areas without significant tranmission losses? Can superconductivity be viable in such a hot environment?
Stirling Energy Systems is using Stirling Engine technology (hence the name) to generate electricity from a thermal gradient. How do these engines work? Why do they have higher efficiency than, say, a steam engine?
Thermal energy storage is a key component to any solar thermal installation. I believe they are using molten salts to store their energy. How efficient can an energy storage system like this be?
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