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Solar Thermal Energy: A New Way Forward

Jun 7, 2008
It's no secret at all that the world is facing an energy crisis. With fossil fuels prices rising, and demand growing higher than ever, people are scrambling for alternatives. Unfortunately, many of the alternatives have some major drawbacks which prevent them from being effective options at this point.

Enter concentrated solar thermal. Though its certainly not perfect yet, this technology shows some great promise for providing clean energy well into the future. Solar power is not a new idea at all, and many photo voltaic based plants (standard "solar panels") have already been built, these plants are quite expensive due to the cost of the panel materials, and take up huge amounts of land to be effective. Even worse, as soon as the sun stops shining, the electricity stops being produced.

Solar thermal solves these problem by taking a completely different design. Rather than converting the sunlight directly to electricity, as photo voltaic panels do, solar thermal systems use some sort of reflector dish to concentrate the sunlight into a small area. This concentrated sunlight is then used to heat fluid inside an absorber tube. Think of shining a magnifying glass onto a test tube of water. This heated fluid is then transferred to a heat engine, which converts the heat into electricity.

This system has several advantages. One of the most notable advantages is that since the heat fluid can be store in insulated reservoirs until needed, solar thermal plants can produce power at nigh and on overcast days, which is a huge plus in an actual power system, where the load is 24 hours a day. Storing energy as heat is much more efficient that storing it as electricity, so these plants will have a huge leg up in this area. Another cool feature of solar thermal is that it could be used to help desalinate salt water, making it a doubly useful resource in coastline areas.

Another advantage of solar thermal energy is its great reliability. Since the system is quite simple, running a solar plant based on the technology will not take much of an effort. Because of this, these power plants can last long into the future, providing power for years to come.

It has been estimated the the United States power needs could be fulfilled by a 92 by 92 mile grid of solar thermal generators. This is a huge number in reality, but it does illustrate that this could be a viable technology. And indeed, it viability has been recognized as private investors such as Pierre Omidyar are putting increasing amounts of funding into the industry. With this type of support, it will be interesting to see where this technology heads in the future.

Though it is certainly not perfect just yet, concentrated solar thermal power generation has the potential to transform the way we think about energy in this country. The dream of limitless, clean, renewable energy may seem a little pie in the sky for some, but the solar thermal technology helps bring it one step closer to becoming a reality. Keep an eye out, and I predict you will see solar thermal power generation becoming a huge player in the upcoming energy revolution.
About the Author
David Wilson is a man of many interests. You can read about some of these interests at his blog, Dave's Place , which contains his musing on subjects ranging anywhere from entertainment news to alternative energy.
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