Concentrated Solar Thermal Power Technology – ( TeK-THinK )
The need to harness energy from alternative sources to power our society has resulted in the development of many different types of alternative energy including concentrated solar thermal power ( CSP) most commonly found as dish,parabolic collectors or as towers. At the forefront concentrated solar power technology’s development is eSolar, a company operating out of Burbank, California and founded by Idealab (a business incubator) in 2007. The company is mainly focused on developing low-cost CSP plant solutions that would offset (or in some cases eliminate) the need to use fossil fuels.
The Advantages of Concentrated Solar Power
Concentrated Solar Thermal Power technology works differently from Photovoltaics. Photovoltaics or PV converts solar energy directly to electricity by using photovoltaic semiconductors (solar cells). On the other hand, CSP uses a system of mirrors/lenses that concentrate light on a small area to generate heat which is then used to power a heat engine connected to a power generator. Although both are designed to generate energy from the sun, CSP technology is considerably more efficient and scalable compared to PV.
eSolar’s Concentrated Solar Thermal Technology
The power plants that eSolar makes using its CSP technology are not only efficient, they’re also cost-effective. Since the company’s proprietary heliostats are smaller than the industry standard, it’s easier to mass-manufacture, pre-fabricate, and install. Additionally, the company also developed field software to fully automate and control numerous heliostats to ensure that they are optimized for collecting solar energy. A perfect example of the eSolar’s CSP technology in action is Sierra SunTower power plant. Located in Lancaster, California, this 5 Megawatt plant generates power with two eSolar CSP modules that includes a jaw-dropping 24000 heliostats. Currently, the Sierra SunTower is the only commercial CSP power plant operating in North America.
Investors and Achievements
Numerous companies have invested close to $200 million in eSolar since it was founded in 2007. It has also partnered with notable companies in the power industry like NRG Energy, Ferrostaal, Aalborg CSP A/S to develop power plants using its CSP modules/heliostats. Other companies/investment groups like Google.org, Oak Investment Partners, Quercus Trust, and the ACME Group, have also invested in the venture backed private company. In terms of achievements, the company has received endorsements from Arnold Schwarzenegger (when he was still governor of California in 2009) as well as awards/recognition from multiple organizations/institutions like the World Economic Forum and MIT.
Is eSolar’s Concentrated Solar Thermal Power or CSP technology a good alternative for fossil fuels? There’s no doubt that this technology can potentially change the power industry. As of now though, the technology is far from perfect. And even though the company has received hundreds of millions in investments, the power sector still relies heavily on power plants that use fossil fuels. The Sierra SunTower is still a proof of concept and with an output of 5 MW, we still can’t conclude if CSP power plants will be replacing traditional fossil fuel power plants five to ten years from now. Some experts have gone on record to say that CSP will eventually provide 25% of the world’s power by the year 2050. With additional funding on top of the continued development of more efficient heliostat designs and sun-tracking applications, we might not have to wait too long. Ultimately, we can only hope that CSP as well as other technologies to harness energy from alternative sources continue to develop and improve so that we can finally wean ourselves from our dependence to fossil fuels.