A review of the players in thermal based solar shows some surprising numbers and valuable innovation. The base design of a mirror focused on a black tube filled with an oil base working fluid, while old is still coming on strong. Two prototypes have started up and ten, yes ten, are in or past the planning stage. Those ten will produce power equivalent to three nuclear reactors.

Solar Tower Mojave Desert

There are already plants in the Mojave Desert in California producing 384 megawatts.


There are eight under construction across Spain, Algeria, and Morocco. Nine more are set for Israel, Mexico, China, South Africa, and Egypt. That’s twenty nine due over the next few years.

Thermal Solar Distribution by State

It’s said that the U.S. southwest could power the whole United States. While a truth, the transmission issue is essentially a deal killer so far. However, the region has a huge advantage, nuclear power is so wrapped up by busybodies of many descriptions to oppose, delay or stop a nuclear plant that it takes years longer than construction scheduled time to get anything done. But the thermal solar guys can have a site operational in two years.

The current crop of thermal solar facility is making power at 15 to 20 cents a kilowatt/hr. That’s still pretty high. The experts are saying that some experience in building, operation and optimized design can cut that to 10 cents. New coal plants are running 7 cents. But in the U.S. southwest the time of day makes huge difference. Thermal solar comes on just when the peak demand arrives so the price at 10 cents isn’t so steep when looked at compared to natural gas fired plants.

Perhaps a trigger was pulled on February 21st, 2008 when Pinnacle West’s unit the Arizona Public Service announced plans for a large plant to be constructed by the Spanish firm Abengoa due to be running in 2011.

Now it gets interesting – Abengoa’s solar design has a heat storage system that holds the heat for up to six hours past sunset. At a rating of 280 megawatts, in just one thermal solar facility, it’s a critical size and delivery system that can answers real issues with a working solution.

Along with Abengoa, another Spanish firm has rooted into the field. Acciona, who built Nevada Solar One in Boulder City Nevada, with the parabolic mirrors focused onto a working fluid, Ausra in Las Vegas is building a mirror factory that will double world thermal solar mirror capacity in one factory. The German company Schott is building a factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico to make the tubes that absorb the energy and transfer it into the working fluid.

The progress in acceptance and the coming of orders has let loose an effort to improve designs and add the storage, or sort of a thermos bottle to hold heat. The first use is to level the power output for the inevitable cloud passing over. But the engineering and the new larger scales allow the thermos to be big enough to cover a difficult day or run for hours after the sun sets. That’s where the human skill and the computerized calculations come in. Control of the balances of the solar arriving, the need for heat at the moment and the wish to have stored heat both for the cloud or overnight power is a new task to be learned and developed with experience.

There will be opposition as the plants become more common. For now, we are thrilled with the beauty and symmetry of design. We can look forward to lowered costs and designs that are more efficient.


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