Friday, October 21, 2011

World Changing Ideas: Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)

Last month, DESERTEC were in Almería, in the south of Spain to record the opening of the impressive Andasol 3 Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant. This short movie gives an idea of the power (pun intended) of that project.

I have been convinced for some time that CSP will be the most important wedge in the world's future energy supply, so I'm delighted to see such tangible steps from Andasol.

I first started to take CSP seriously when I saw the following picture over four years ago, via The Oil Drum (a cool resource that you should subscribe to just after you've subscribed to my blog using the button on the right there ==>)

The area of desert needed to meet the electricity demands of the world, and Europe.
Did you know that in just six hours, deserts receive more energy from our sun than the entire global population consumes in a year? That is peak daylight hours, of course, but the sun shines all day on a belt that encompasses the globe either side of the equator.

Thanks to high voltage DC power infrastructure (to be covered in a future blog), most countries will soon be able to supplement their energy with clean electricity from deserts. As shown in the video above, with heat storage tanks, solar-thermal power plants in deserts can also supply electricity through the night. 

The map above is cool, but this is still my favourite CSP image.
Europe's first commercial scale CSP plant near Seville
in Spain, soon after it came online almost 5 years ago.

That pic almost feels like it has been touched up to evoke the awesome power of Sauron's tower from Lord of the Rings, but from all reports, the effect of the reflected sunlight on the dust in the air is the real deal. 

Personally, I think it's great that we can still see our power being produced with CSP, just like the old days...
"Clean Coal" anyone?

We have far too many of these in and around Belgium - some not too far above sea level,
which is worrying considering Japan's recent experiences, and my previous ramblings.
Seriously though, the best thing about CSP is that from a technology perspective it is pretty much exactly the same as what currently powers the world, but without the dangerous, smelly part. Almost all the energy on the planet today is produced by superheating a liquid, then using the steam to turn a turbine that is attached to a generator.

CSP simply replaces the non-renewable and dangerous oil, coal, natural gas, or uranium bit of the power plant with mirrors. The rest of the plant is almost exactly the same, but for one important thing. The power that drives the generator comes from solar energy. This renewable energy is already hitting the earth and is being "wasted" today (or perhaps I should say that this resource is not appropriately "monetized" today.)

This technical compatibility between the old and new is great news if you work in the power industry - unless, of course, you are one of the people who actually handles, stores, transports, or wears a uniform to defend the uranium, coal, or oil... Hmm... Actually... No... CSP is great news for everyone in the power industry.

The video above shows that the latest generation of CSP plants are not as awesome as Sauron's tower in Seville, but they are cheap and easy to deploy and scale. This is big business in Spain, but is finally being taken seriously in other parts of the world, especially the US, China, North Africa, and finally, Australia.

All of the above sounds pretty cool and world changing, sure... I love that we can stop thinking of deserts as gigantic, lifeless, wastes of space and instead, start to think of them as highly valuable batteries for those of us rich enough to need power. 

In a future post we'll see that this is just the beginning though - I will walk through some systems thinking and discuss the role that CSP will play in the bigger picture as we transform deserts into something even more conducive to sustainable human flourishing. I hope you'll stick around.

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