Concentrating Solar Power Basics
Concentrating solar power systems harness heat from sunlight to provide electricity for large power stations.
Many power plants today use fossil fuels as a heat source to boil water. The steam from the boiling water spins a large turbine, which drives a generator to produce electricity. However, a new generation of power plants use concentrating solar power systems and the sun as a heat source. The three main types of concentrating solar power systems are: linear concentrator, dish/engine, and power tower systems.
Linear Concentrator Systems
Linear concentrator systems collect the sun's energy using long rectangular, curved (U-shaped) mirrors. The mirrors are tilted toward the sun, focusing sunlight on tubes (or receivers) that run the length of the mirrors. The reflected sunlight heats a fluid flowing through the tubes. The hot fluid then is used to boil water in a conventional steam-turbine generator to produce electricity.
There are two major types of linear concentrator systems: parabolic trough systems, where receiver tubes are positioned along the focal line of each parabolic mirror; and linear Fresnel reflector systems, where one receiver tube is positioned above several mirrors to allow the mirrors greater mobility in tracking the sun.
A dish/engine system uses a mirrored dish similar to a very large satellite dish, although to minimize costs, the mirrored dish is usually composed of many smaller flat mirrors formed into a dish shape. The dish-shaped surface directs and concentrates sunlight onto a thermal receiver, which absorbs and collects the heat and transfers it to the engine generator.
The most common type of heat engine used today in dish/engine systems is the Stirling engine. This system uses the fluid heated by the receiver to move pistons and create mechanical power. The mechanical power is then used to run a generator or alternator to produce electricity.
Power Tower Systems
A power tower system uses a large field of flat, sun-tracking mirrors known as heliostats to focus and concentrate sunlight onto a receiver on the top of a tower. A heat-transfer fluid heated in the receiver is used to generate steam, which, in turn, is used in a conventional turbine generator to produce electricity.
Some power towers use water/steam as the heat-transfer fluid. Other advanced designs are experimenting with molten nitrate salt because of its superior heat-transfer and energy-storage capabilities. The energy-storage capability, or thermal storage, allows the system to continue to dispatch electricity during cloudy weather or at night.
For more information about concentrating solar energy, visit the following resources:
Concentrating Solar Power Research at NREL
Energy 101 video on Concentrating Solar Power
Concentrating Solar Power
U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy