An hour away from Area 51 in the Nevada desert, this solar power plant "banks" energy in a way that could be replicated across the world.
An hour away from Area 51 in the Nevada desert, a beacon shines inexhaustibly day after day. And while its proximity to the famous classified zone makes some travelers believe they have seen something alien, the artifact is far from being extraterrestrial.
The beacon is part of a revolutionary solar generating and storage technology that may finally make solar power an undeniable competitor to coal and nuclear. With the first utility-scale facility already operating in Crescent Dunes, Nevada (and several more under development around the world), we are hopefully seeing the beginning of a new era in energy production.
The technology is called concentrated solar power (CSP) and uses a system of mirrors to concentrate solar energy and turn it into thermal by heating up a medium. The Crescent Dunes Power Plant, developed by the company SolarReserve, uses salts to capture and store the energy from the sun. The result is solar power available 24 hours a day, that can meet utility demands just like conventional fossil fuels, except without any emissions or hazardous waste.
While a CSP facility may look like a photovoltaic farm, the only similarity is that both technologies use sunlight as fuel.
At Crescent Dunes the sun’s energy is concentrates via 10,347 tracking mirrors called heliostats to a precise point on top of a central receiver tower. Highly accurate GPS measurements and algorithms enable the movement of the mirrors throughout the day and the positioning of the beam on the receiver.
Cold salt, stored in a tank next to the tower, is pumped up to collect the generated heat which can reach up to a 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The molten salt is then pumped down into a hot salt tank which acts like a battery, preserving the heat for up to 16 hours. Unlike batteries, however, molten salt lasts for 40 years or more, without any degradation or need for replacement and it also costs less.
The molten salt in the tank can then be used to generate steam to drive a turbine and create electricity. This part of the cycle is identical to the process used in traditional coal or nuclear power plants, except it is 100 percent renewable and 100 percent clean.
The Crescent Dunes plant produces more than 500,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, twice the generation of an equivalent sized photovoltaics (PV) plant. Storage allows the facility to produce more than twice as much net annual output (kilowatt hours) than an equivalent sized photovoltaic (PV) solar project. Its 1.1 gigawatt-hour storage capability alone is about equal to all the world's utility scale batteries combined.
100% of the generated energy is purchased by NV Energy under a 25-year contract, and used for distribution to its customers during peak demand periods. The solar plant can power 75,000 homes, day and night.
Now, falling prices of CSP are making prospects for the technology look promising. The new plants SolarReserve is building in Australia and Chile are expected to sell power at 6 and 5 cents per kilowatt-hour respectively - prices comparable to those from photovoltaics. Construction costs have also been cut in half, from almost $1 billion for the Crescent Dunes plant.
Mark Mehos, program manager for CSP research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado said for Inside Climate News:
"We really need to see installations, on the ground, that match those bids and that operate reliably.”
The construction and performance of the new CSP plants currently in the pipeline will be the deciding factor for the future of the technology. But Mehos is optimistic, “It seems inescapable, doesn't it?”
85% of the electricity used in the world is generated by expensive, large, and inefficient steam turbines. Modern Electron plans to change that, producing efficient, cheap energy for all—using fossil fuels.
If Modern Electron, an energy innovation startup co-founded by Max Mankin, could make fossil fuels just 1% more efficient it would equal the entire contribution from all the solar panels across the world. The team’s mission is to generate cheap, modular, and reliable electricity for all. Max Mankin is a Hertz Foundation fellow and recipient of the prestigious Hertz Foundation Grant for graduate study in the applications of the physical, biological and engineering sciences. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, he pursued a PhD in chemistry at Harvard University. The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.
As its CEO, Bill Nye lays out the missions The Planetary Society would like to see NASA focus on over the next 20 years. NASA by nature goes where the future is, and Nye can't help but think of another industry that should follow suit.
Why is NASA so important? Let us count the ways – for its intellectual and physical daring, its spinoff technology that has advanced civilization generally (we wouldn’t have the internet without NASA) – but perhaps chief among them is that no matter who you are in the world or how you feel about the United States, NASA earns global respect for its technological achievement and drive towards progress and efficiency. An industry that could learn from that ethos, rather than digging its heels in to delay the future, is fossil fuels. If everyone pulled together in the same direction, it would mean clean, renewable energy for everyone on Earth, much sooner. Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.
Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.