Understanding the benefits of concentrated solar thermal energy generation systems

Generating electricity while using the free energy beamed on our planet by the sun is a great way to save the environment in present times that are dominated by concerns about the availability of conventional fuels to run the power plants. Solar energy can be converted into usable electricity in two ways – by using photovoltaic panels, and by installing a concentrated solar thermal energy system.

What is Concentrated Solar Thermal Energy?

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Unlike photovoltaics, where the panel itself generates electricity, CSP installations require a large setup of energy focusing mirrors that track the sun throughout the day and focus the heat onto a tower where steam is produced to run a conventional steam turbine. The principle behind the technology is the same as what happens when you focus sunlight through a magnifying lens onto a piece of paper, albeit on a much larger scale.

Benefits of Concentrated Solar Power:

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Although the installation cost of a CSP power plant is definitely much higher than a photovoltaic energy generating system, there is a wide range of benefits associated with it too. Here are some of the benefits of concentrated solar energy generating systems.

  • Large installed capacity:

Solar thermal power plants can generate a lot more energy on a specified area of land than photovoltaic power plants. This is the reason why utility companies are more interested in setting up solar thermal power plants as they need a lot smaller piece of land to generate a large amount of clean, renewable energy.

  • Energy Storage:

Conventional solar panels need expensive batteries to store all the excess energy they generated during the daytime to be used on overcast days or during night. On the other hand, solar thermal power plants store heat in the form of molten salts, which can be used to generate steam and drive turbines after dark or during overcast conditions. This simple and effective energy storage solution makes solar thermal installation more efficient and dependable than photovoltaic solar plants.

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  • High performance:

One of the biggest drawbacks of solar photovoltaic panels is that their production capacity tends to reduce as the panels start to get hot, which is something that cannot be prevented if a panel has to be placed in direct sunlight to produce electricity. This is the reason why large-scale solar photovoltaic installations require an extensive setup of watering systems that keep the panels cool and free from dust and debris. To the contrary, solar thermal power plants have no such consideration and instead of sunlight they use solar heat to heat up salts, generate steam and then produce electricity.

  • Can use existing infrastructure:

Unlike solar PV installations that require a completely new infrastructure to generate electricity, solar thermal power plants can make use of existing infrastructure, which includes power lines and steam turbines to produce clean energy. All such a utility has to do is to use the outdoor space to install mirrors and focus sunlight onto a tower to produce enough heat to melt salts and generate steam. This steam can then be used to drive a conventional steam turbine to produce electricity.

Although both these technologies have their share of disadvantages too, the advantages that they have, primarily generating clean, renewable energy, simply outweigh them. In the near future, when fossil fuel reserves have been depleted, we can well expect solar PV and solar CSP systems to collectively share the burden of powering the world towards the sustainable future.

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