It’s modular, it’s easily deployed, and it can generate industrial process heat at up to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the pitch for a new concentrating solar power system equipped with heat-trapping tiles in the form of a transparent, sponge-like aerogel. The ultimate aim is to scrub fossil energy from hard-to-decarbonize areas of the industrial sector. Now, where are all those people who thought concentrating solar power was a dead end?
Concentrating Solar Power To Anyone: The Report Of My Death Was…
Concentrating solar power systems are designed to deliver heat, not electricity. They work by collecting ambient sunlight from many different points, typically from an array of specialized mirrors or a series of long troughs. The concentrated light is focused on a central point in the case of mirrors, or long tubes in the case of troughs. The heat is then transferred to a transportable, recirculating fluid such as molten salt or a specialized oil.
Typically, the hot fluid is then used to boil water for generating steam. In turn, the steam is used to run turbines to produce electricity. That raises the question of why not just use solar cells to generate electricity directly, and skip the whole thing about making steam. After all, the steam thing adds more infrastructure, more complexity, and more costs.
That was the basic argument deployed by critics of concentrating solar technology during the early years. However, one of the attractions of concentrating solar power is the energy storage angle. Once the circulating fluid is heated, it can potentially stay hot for hours, enabling a steam power plant to keep churning out kilowatts long after the sun has set.
Despite a barrage of criticism, the US Department of Energy began promoting concentrating solar power as a showcase for American clean energy know-how all through the Obama administration. The Energy Department continued to carry the torch for additional technology improvements during the administration that followed the Obama administration and has since been replaced by the Biden administration. The projects included some interesting moves in the area of supercritical carbon dioxide and other innovations aimed at enabling solar energy to compete mano-a-mano with fossil energy for control of the nation’s power grid.
That’s all well and good for decarbonizing the electricity generation business, but it still leaves the area of industrial process heat wide open.
Earlier this year, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory ran the numbers and outlined the need to do something about industrial process heat, such as paper mills and other industrial processes that require heat.
“Fossil fuels account for about 87% of all manufacturing fuel use in the United States, which is essentially the same as four decades ago,” NREL observed, emphasizing the need for a strategic approach.
Somewhat ironically, a good deal of that manufacturing fuel use is related to petroleum refining. Based …….