CSP: key to cheap solar power?

CSP — concentrated solar power — is producing electricity for supply to the grid in many places around the world.  There have been / are many efforts seeking to bring CSP into the retail marketplace.   (Such as SunCube.) Soliant Energy looks near to achieving this — not with using CSP to boil water to generate steam, but CSP to focus more light on PV cells to increase the actual electrical output per each PV element, thus reducing overall costs.

There are a variety of paths that Soliant has pursued that reduces cost.  One of which is reduced pv material (about 90 percent less silicon). Another is that the construction, in strips (the reflective troughs) enables the modules to be built larger.  (And, one would have to think, modularly as well.)  In terms of efficiency, Soliant has developed a tracking system that enables more uniform power production throughout sunlight hours.  All told, about the same electricity output as ‘traditional pv’ but at a fraction of the cost per kilowatt of capacity.

Just two days ago in a visit to Soliant, Congressman Adam Schiff announced his support for HR550, which will extend federal tax credits for solar power though 2017.  This 10-year extension (and expansion) of solar tax credits will provide certainty for business planning — a critical element of helping the market deliver solutions for our energy challenges.

In following these incentives, Soliant will focus first on the commercial rooftop space. (Perhaps through companies, like MMA Renewable Ventures, that specialize in putting solar on commercial rooftops and selling the electricity to the building owners.)

But, Soliant’s approach offers the potential for Solar Power at Half the Cost according to its CEO, Brad Hines.  Hines states that their second-generation will cut prices in half again and he also suggests that, by 2010, Soliant will have an even more advanced system on the market.

Now, as noted in Technology Review, this isn’t a perfect solution:

As a solar concentrating system, this design has a few drawbacks. Because the troughs are mounted close together, they shade each other during parts of the day, decreasing the total amount of electricity produced. They can also only track from side to side, which makes it impossible for them to follow exactly the arc of the sun across the sky.

In other words, while this first generation will be on the market and going on roofs this fall, there are improvements other than price to come in the next generations.

This is potentially a quite exciting development … potentially.

What is truly exciting, however, is the range of ‘breakthrough’ possibilities in a wide range of renewable energy products.  And, these are starting to hit the marketplace with minor players like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s recently announcing major solar PV purchases.  And, well, if Soliant’s Heliotube lives up to its promise, there are an awful lot of department store, warehouse, apartment and office buidling, and other flat roofs ready to be covered with affordable solar electricity systems. 


8 responses to “CSP: key to cheap solar power?

  1. I had read many years ago in Mother Earth News how tracking could increase solar electric output by 20 – 30 %.

    What does a microprocessor, an array of photodiodes and a small servo motor cost these days? Under $100 dollars? You’d think this technology would be as common as dirt by now.

    I’m glad someone is focusing on more than just PV itself and is considering the surrounding technologies that leverage a lot of low hanging fruit like this for power generation.

  2. Re the microprocessor … don’t have the links at the moment … but one of the points about CSP is that it cost $100s (if not $1000s) to provide the computing power a few decades ago to control the tracking of the sun and that the cost for that computing is pennies now, thus making CSP an ever-more affordable approach.

  3. If multi-band or multi-junction solar cells can be manufactured in a cost-effective manner, this is a moot point. We’ll all go solar at 50% photovoltaic efficiency if the cost is equal to the current equipment.

    Article about multi-band solar

    Waiting for the perfect solution introduces significant opportunity cost in passing up decent alternatives available now, so I don’t think it’s necessarily worth the wait. But if PV systems become more common, I sure would love to see an AMD vs. Intel or ATI vs. Nvidia-type technology race. If solar materials engineering can get on a Moore’s Law-type curve, solar will be a total no-brainer.

  4. There is a serious set of improvements, not quite Moore’s, but getting there … Examples?

    * 85% – Decrease in the price of solar cell modules between 1982 and 2006.

    * 72% – Increase in shipments of photovoltaic systems between 2004 and 2005.

    * 33% – Increase in grid-connected solar installations in the United States in 2006.

    * 59% – Portion of solar installations in the past 5 years that were tied to conventional public electricity grids.

  5. It might be a neat DiY… buy a Basic Stamp micro-processor for about $30 bucks… a handful of photodiodes and other equipment from Radio Shack, a small PV panel, raid an old dot matrix printer for a stepper motor and make a swivel mount adjustable by latitude just to compare fixed vs. tracking energy yield.

    Actually it would probably be easier just to do it with a calendar against the microprocessor’s internal clock. Then all you’d need would be a limit switch on each side to calibrate; saving the trouble of doing inputs from the photodiodes.

    I might do one and just donate the plans to some relief agency that does solar in third world countries.

    Want to partner, Doug?

    BasicStamp would probably donate processors.

  6. Doug Snodgrass

    “Want to partner, Doug?”

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I think I’ve just been invited to a square dance.

  7. *Charlton Heston*

    Solient Energy is PEOPLE! It’s PEEEEEPOOOOLLLLEEE!

    *Charlton Heston*

  8. “Get your hands off of me you damn dirty apes!!!”

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