The Future of Solar Energy Will Be Multifaceted

Posted in Clean Electric, Community Solar, Solar, Solar New in VT

When we think solar, almost all of us probably conjure up images in our heads of photovoltaic panels, and when we think large-scale, utility sized solar power plants many might imagine a sea of blue silicon stretching for as far as the eye can see. Certainly there are many solar power plants which live up to this image, but it is far from the only way we can harness solar energy to work for us. Concentrating solar energy using concave mirrors and harnessing the thermal energy produced is another way we can continue to harness the sun. Indeed, as we strive towards a greener energy mix — and eventually a fossil fuel-free one — we must use a multifaceted approach.

Concentrated solar in the form of Power Towers will likely see increasing relevance. The reason concentrated solar has a large role to play will be in its ability to store the thermal energy acquired during the day for use during the night. Concentrated solar functions like most traditional power plants — from wood-fired to nuclear — in that there is a heating element is used to boil water into steam to turn a turbine which generates electricity. Power Towers are able to serve as essential enormous thermal batteries, where the heat (thermal energy) harvested during the day is used to maintain molten salt at incredibly high temperatures. The molten salt is then run through a pool of water where it causes steam to be produced, rise, spin a turbine, then be recondensed for another round. The thermal properties of the molten salt used make it ideal for heat retention and the Power Towers are able to produce energy 24/7 since their salt stays hot through the night. Additionally, since the generation of power is no longer coupled directly to solar exposure, but rather coupled to the thermal energy stored, it means that the plant’s electrical generation can be scaled up based on energy demands. This mitigates or eliminates the need to have fossil-fuel backup plants which can be put online when demand increases at peak times.

Technology such as Power Towers will have a large role to play as we move forward into a clean energy future, unfortunately they aren’t something you can personally claim to own, nor will we likely see any homes advertising being 100% Power Tower powered anytime soon, so you still have a chance to get your solar bragging rights through PV and help us build the next phase of the clean energy revolution.

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