Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Concentrated solar power - a game changer

We acknowledge that solar energy is a potential renewable energy source of the future. The total energy requirement of the world is projected in the next 40 years to be 30 TW (terra watts) and only solar energy has a potential to meet the above demand. However, harnessing sun’s energy to its fullest potential is still a long way to go. Concentrated solar power (CSP) offers a greater hope to fill this gap. The main reason is the cost advantage of CSP compared to PV solar and energy storage technologies and their costs. The cost of PV solar has steadily decreased in the past few years. Though the cost of solar cell has come down to $0.75 per watt, the overall cost of the PV system is still around $ 3.00 per watt. This is due to the cost of encapsulation; interconnect wiring, mounting of panels, inverters and battery bank. The overall cost of the system will not come down drastically beyond a point. This makes PV solar still more expensive compared to conventional power generation using fossil fuels. People can understand the value of renewable energy and impending dangers of global warming due to greenhouse gases, but the ultimate cost of energy will determine the future of energy sources. In PV solar the sun’s light energy is directly converted into Electricity, but storing such energy using batteries have certain limitations. PV solar is suitable for small scale operations but it may not be cost effective for large scale base load power generation. The best option will be to harness the suns thermal energy and store them and use them to generate power using the conventional and established methods such as steam or gas turbines. Once we generate thermal energy of required capacity then we have number of technologies to harness them into useful forms. As we mentioned earlier, the thermal energy can trigger a chemical reaction such as formation of Ammonia by reaction between Hydrogen and Nitrogen under pressure, which will release a large amount of thermal energy by exothermic reaction. Such heat can be used to generate steam to run a stem turbine to generate power. The resulting ammonia can be split with concentrated solar power (CSP) into Hydrogen and Nitrogen and the above process can be repeated. The same system can also be used to split commercial Ammonia into Hydrogen and Nitrogen. The resulting Hydrogen can be separated and stored under pressure. This Hydrogen can be used to fuel Fuel cell cars such as Honda FXC or to generate small scale power for homes and offices. By using CSP, there is potential of cost savings as much as 70% compared to PV solar system for the same capacity power generation on a larger scale. Focusing sun’s energy using large diameter parabolic troughs and concentrators, one can generate high temperatures. Dishes can typically vary in size and configuration from a small diameter of perhaps 1 meter to much larger structures of a dozen or more meters in diameter. Point focus dish concentrators are mounted on tracking systems that track the sun in two axes, directly pointing at the sun, and the receiver is attached to the dish at the focal point so that as the dish moves, the receiver moves with it. These point focus systems can generate high temperatures exceeding 800ºC and even 1,800ºC. The temperature required to run a steam turbine does not exceed 290C and it is quite possible to store thermal energy using mixture of molten salts with high Eutectic points and use them to generate steam. Such large scale energy storage using lead-acid batteries and power generation using PV solar may not be economical. But it will be economical and technically feasible to harness solar thermal energy using CSP for large scale base load power generation. It is estimated that the cost of such CSP will compete with traditional power generation using coal or oil in the near future.CSP has potential to generate cost effective clean power as well as a fuel for transportation.