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SolarPILOT Released as Open Source; Tool Used to Optimize Solar Power Towers

Used by researchers and project developers, NREL’s Solar Power Tower Integrated Layout and Optimization Tool (SolarPILOT) generates and characterizes power tower systems or systems using central receivers. The software—along with its companion ray-tracing tool SolTrace—is now being made available as open source on NREL's GitHub page. Both the SolarPILOT and SolTrace GitHub projects are open to contributions from users, and a webinar planned for July 18 will present the open-source projects.

SolarPILOT is used to evaluate technology performance, quantify the value of research findings, and provide third-party, independent validation for privately developed tools. The tool has a graphical user interface as well as an application programming interface that gives external programs access to SolarPILOT's functionality.

"With the transition to open source, we hope to engage the expertise and enthusiasm of SolarPILOT and SolTrace users. We want to use collaboration to create a tool set that meets the diverse needs of the concentrating solar power community," said Mike Wagner, SolarPILOT creator and NREL senior researcher. "The latest version brings more to the table in terms of stability, flexibility, and documentation. And it’s now fully transparent, so code developers can access and take advantage of the algorithms that we've developed."

SolarPILOT has been developed with both computational efficiency and accuracy in mind. As the number of heliostats increases, systems become more computationally expensive to simulate. But SolarPILOT implements methods to reduce the overall computational burden while generating accurate and precise results. The tool also offers several unique capabilities. Unlike tools that exclusively use ray-tracing, SolarPILOT runs an analytical simulation engine that uses a modified Gaussian Taylor-series expansion to characterize the image generated by each heliostat.

SolarPILOT Version 1.1 includes many new features, with key ones listed below:

  • Significantly reduced run time (by 95% or greater) for ray trace simulations with large numbers of heliostats
  • Improved heliostat field plotting tools
  • Cross-platform support (Windows, Linux)
  • Support for scripting using the NREL System Advisor Model's LK scripting language.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies capture sunlight to produce heat that drives today's conventional thermoelectric generation systems or future advanced generation systems. A unique feature of CSP is the ability to store heated material in an inexpensive and efficient thermal energy storage system. The stored thermal energy can be tapped between sunset and sunrise or during cloudy weather to provide renewable electricity on demand.