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Power tower systems:
What is a Power Tower and How Does it Work?
A power tower converts sunshine into clean electricity for the world’s electricity grids. The technology utilizes many large, sun-tracking mirrors (heliostats) to focus sunlight on a receiver at 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. Early power towers (such as the Solar One plant) utilized steam as the heat transfer fluid; current designs (including Solar Two, pictured) utilize molten nitrate salt because of its superior heat transfer and energy storage capabilities. Individual commercial plants will be sized to produce anywhere from 50 to 200 MW of electricity.

What are the Benefits of Power Towers?
Solar power towers offer large-scale, distributed solutions to our nation’s energy needs, particularly for peaking power. Like all solar technologies, they are fueled by sunshine and do not release greenhouse gases. They are unique among solar electric technologies in their ability to efficiently store solar energy and dispatch electricity to the grid when needed — even at night or during cloudy weather. A single 100-megawatt power tower with 12 hours of storage needs only 1000 acres of otherwise non-productive land to supply enough electricity for 50,000 homes. Throughout the sunny Southwest, millions of acres are available with solar resources that could easily produce solar power at the scale of hydropower in the Northwest U. S.

What is the Status of Power Tower Technology?
Power towers enjoy the benefits of two successful, large-scale demonstration plants. The 10-MW Solar One plant near Barstow, CA, demonstrated the viability of power towers, producing over 38 million kilowatt-hours of electricity during its operation from 1982 to 1988. The Solar Two plant was a retrofit of Solar One to demonstrate the advantages of molten salt for heat transfer and thermal storage. Utilizing its highly efficient molten-salt energy storage system, Solar Two successfully demonstrated efficient collection of solar energy and dispatch of electricity, including the ability to routinely produce electricity during cloudy weather and at night. In one demonstration, it delivered power to the grid 24 hours per day for nearly 7 straight days before cloudy weather interrupted operation.

The successful conclusion of Solar Two sparked worldwide interest in power towers. As Solar Two completed operations, an international consortium, led by U. S. industry including Bechtel and Boeing (with technical support from Sandia National Laboratories), formed to pursue power tower plants worldwide, especially in Spain (where special solar premiums make the technology cost-effective), but also in Egypt, Morocco, and Italy. Their first commercial power tower plant is planned to be four times the size of Solar Two (about 40 MW equivalent, utilizing storage to power a 15MW turbine up to 24 hours per day).

This industry is also actively pursuing opportunities to build a similar plant in our desert Southwest, where a 30 to 50 MW plant would take advantage of the Spanish design and production capacity to reduce costs, while providing much needed peaking capacity for the Western grid. The first such plant would cost in the range of $100M and produce power for about 15¢/kWh. While still somewhat higher in cost than conventional technologies in the peaking market, the cost differential could be made up with modest green power subsidies and political support, jump-starting this technology on a path to 7¢/kWh power with the economies of scale and engineering improvements of the first few plants. It would, at that point, provide clean power as economically as more conventional technologies.


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