The Other Solar Power

Solar thermal power cuts a fascinating contrast with solar photovoltaics and wind turbines — today’s leading renewable energy technologies — besting one on price and the other on quality. Little surprise then that it is being selected for power plants equal in output to large wind farms and ten-times the size of the largest photovoltaic installations.

Whereas photovoltaics employ semiconductors to directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal power stations convert sunlight into heat to generate steam and drive a turbine. This roundabout is, ironically, a huge money-saver. The Abengoa thermal solar power towers in Sevillemirrors, pipes, pumps and steam turbines that form a solar thermal plant cost less than half than an equivalently powerful array of photovoltaics.

Solar thermal cannot similarly challenge wind turbines on cost (at least not at present). But solar thermal plants can store some of the energy they capture and, as a result, produce a much steadier and more reliable supply of electricity than the famously variable wind turbine.

So why then did we hear so much about solar photovoltaics over the past decade and sol little of solar thermal? Because the latter is inherently utility-scale technology, whereas photovoltaic panels provide value one rooftop at a time. Fred Morse, a solar thermal pioneer and currently senior advisor to renewable energy developer Abengoa Solar, likens it to a bakery operating through the depression. “If you had a bakery and you sold cookies or big wedding cakes, during hard times you could sell a lot of cookies,” says Morse. “PV has little niche markets and it could grow and grow and as the price came down it expanded those markets to where it is today.”

These days, thanks to state and (albeit on-again-off-again) federal incentives and record fuel prices, solar power is back to wedding cakes.

For more, check out “Solar without the Panels”

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3 thoughts on “The Other Solar Power

  1. Your comments here as well as in your article at Technology Review were very helpful. Hopefully the current demand (need) for wedding cakes will make them as affordable as cookies so that the choice is no longer an economic one. Thanks Peter.

    Jordan

  2. thank you for both this and the Tech Review article that bring the reader up-to-date on the latest developments. There is still a place for solar photovoltaic panels, as in locations where these larger installations would be impossible. Have there been any breakthroughs in the technology for local, individual home uses?
    Also, I wonder if the new solar/thermal storage will render wind power less desirable for investment or will it push wind power producers to develop still better technologies?

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