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New Solar Storage Technology Makes Debut July 12, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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While solar power has shown a lot of potential as a source of renewable energy the one major problem it has struggled to overcome is its intermittent nature.  Not only does this have the rather obvious problem of not providing electricity at night but it also hamstrings it in its ability to respond to changes in energy demand.  Now a company in Spain has demonstrated technology that may allow the solar industry to overcome that limitation.

The Gemasolar 19.9-MW Concentrated Solar Power system is a “power tower” plant, consisting of an array of 2,650 heliostats (mirrors) that aim solar radiation at the top of a 140-m (450-ft) central tower. The radiation heats molten salts that circulate inside the tower to temperatures of more than 500 °C (932 °F). The hot molten salts are then stored in tanks that are specially designed to maintain the high temperatures. This cutting-edge heat storage system enables the power plant to run steam turbines and generate electricity for up to 15 hours without any incoming solar radiation.

Is it perfect?  Of course not.  Facilities like this will take a large amount of space and will most likely be relegated to very rural areas.  This in turn will lead to problems of transporting the energy to urban areas of high usage, another issue that has dogged the renewable energy sector for quite awhile.  In addition there is still the issue of inclement weather (multiple cloudy days in a row) which will be particularly devastating to a system that relies on heat production.

All of these issues will likely relegate this kind of technology to a niche market.  It will require a climate that provides long periods of uninterrupted sun, large amounts of open space and well designed energy grid.  But what if those conditions are met, as they are in places like Spain, the southwest United States or (to a lesser extent) Northern Africa.  In the right market this kind of technology could be what pushes solar energy into the lead.

The fact that this will not be the panacea to the global energy problem but rather a small part of a larger energy portfolio is not a criticism.  Anyone who has seriously looked at the issue realizes that our future energy system will be comprised of many different technologies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  A combination of smart technology, a commitment to energy conservation and a societal shift towards lower population and less conspicuous consumption will be what takes us into the future.

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