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Solar Power: Solar Heating, Photovoltaics, and Solar Thermal Power


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Solar Power: Solar Heating, Photovoltaics, and Solar Thermal Power

  1. 1. Solar energy as a source of electricity: A comparisonbetween photovoltaic and solar thermal systemsToni Menninger, University of Arkansas, April 2009Introduction: overview over solar energy usesAlmost all organisms on Earth depend on solar energy for their survival. Plants and algaecapture photons emitted by the sun and transform their radiation energy into chemicalenergy, which in turn powers the metabolism of all plants and animals, including humans.Solar energy is also at the origin of wind and wave power, hydro power, and biomassfuels, and even the energy embodied in the fossil fuels coal, oil, and natural gas is nothingbut solar energy captured millions of years ago and conserved in geological formations.Almost all energy used by human civilization is therefore ultimately of solar origin. Solarenergy is an abundant and renewable energy source and there are many ways of technicallytaking advantage of this source of power. Some of the most interesting applications are smallscale and decentralized and dont require much capital or knowhow. Examples are solarwater disinfection and solar cookers. Solar Water Disinfection is a low-tech processdeveloped by the Swiss research institute EAWAG that consists of filling potentiallycontaminated water into transparent bottles and exposing them to six hours of sunlight.Laboratory tests confirmed that the microbiological quality of the water is significantlyimproved and pathogens causing diarrhea are killed by UV radiation and heat (EAWAG2009). 1
  2. 2. Solar cookers are devices made at very low cost of cardboard and aluminum that allow poorfamilies in developing countries to cook water and prepare meals without the need for burningfuels (JWW 2009).Widely used in regions where sunlight is abundant are solar water heating systemsconsisting of an often very simple and inexpensive solar collector. Israel and Spain currentlyrequire the installation of solar water heating systems in all new buildings (REN21 2006:2).Photovoltaic (PV) cells are becoming widespread in many micro scale applications such aspocket calculators, thus eliminating the need for batteries, and in small scale uses such asroad signs, street lights, or remote telecommunications. On the household scale, PV cellssupply electricity to off the grid households in remote areas, often in combination with windpower (Gipe, 2004:229). Grid connected PV systems, however, have become “the fastestgrowing energy technology in the world, with 50 percent annual increases in cumulativeinstalled capacity in both 2006 and 2007, to an estimated 7.7 GW. This translates into 1.5million homes with rooftop solar PV feeding into the grid worldwide”. (REN21 2007:6) Figure 1: Solar PV world capacity. From REN21 (2007:11) 2
  3. 3. Solar energy, as we have seen, is used in countless small scale applications all over theworld. But can solar energy also be a large scale source of electricity to power our industrialeconomy? This paper will discuss and compare two technical systems for large scaleelectricity generation based on sunshine: photovoltaic power plants, and solar thermal plants.Photovoltaic power plantsPhotovoltaic cells convert sunlight immediately into electricity. The conversion efficiency ofcurrent systems is in the 10-20% range and the output directly depends on the amount ofsunlight that reached the cell. For grid-tied systems, the PV output, which is direct current,must be converted to alternating current, resulting in some loss of energy.In large scale commercial power plants, tens of thousands of PV panels are arranged onhundreds of acres of land, typically on agriculturally marginal or desert areas. Often, thesepanels are automatically adjusted to track the diurnal and seasonal cycle of the sunsapparent movement, thereby maximizing the energy yield.Most PV energy systems are only a few kilowatts (kW) in size but more large-scaleinstallations with capacities of hundreds or more kW have been developed in recent years.According to REN21 (2007:12), there were, as of 2007, more than 800 plants exceeding 200kW in capacity and at least 9 plants larger than 10 MW—in Germany, Portugal, Spain, andthe United States. The worlds two largest PV power plants (20 MW each) were in Spain(REN21, 2007;, 2008).However, the number of large-scale PV installations has grown dramatically since (2009) currently lists 66 PV installations with 10 MW or more in capacity,most of which have been constructed in 2008, mostly in Spain where these plants have beensupported by generous subsidies. In the USA, only two plants > 10 MW are listed, both inNevada. The largest photovoltaic system in North America is in Nellis Air Force Base in ClarkCounty, Nevada. Inaugurated in December 2007, it occupies 140 acres and has a capacity ofabout 14 MW. 3
  4. 4. Solar thermal power plantsSolar thermal power generation uses the solar radiation to heat a thermal fluid (also known asa collector or receiver). This collected heat is then used to generate electricity e. g. with asteam turbine. This is in principle the same process as in any thermal power plant (the heat isfirst transformed into mechanical energy and then into electricity). Due to the second law ofThermodynamics, the efficiency of converting heat into electricity increases with thetemperature. The efficiency of any thermal machine cannot exceed the Carnot efficiency, TCwhich is given by =1− where T H is the temperature (on the Kelvin scale) of the THincoming heat, and T C is the ambient temperature. It follows that, as with any thermalpower plant, it is advantageous to reach as high a temperature as possible.In solar thermal power plants, therefore, the solar radiation is concentrated by means ofreflectors to achieve a high temperature, a process known as Concentrating Solar Power(CSP) (DOE 2007). The requirement to reach a high temperature limits the conditions underwhich CSP can work. Whereas PV systems can generate power even on cloudy days andunder diffuse light conditions, CSP systems require direct, strong sunlight (CNN 2008).Several technologies are available to concentrate solar radiation: • Parabolic trough: The sunlight is concentrated by a long rectangular reflector that has a parabolic profile (figure 2), and the pipe with the collector fluid runs through the focal point, where the parabola concentrates the sun rays. The trough is adjusted to track the sun by tilting its angle. The collector fluid reaches up to about 400°C (DOE 2007). • Heliostat to central tower (also known as power tower) (figure 3): Heliostats are flat movable mirrors that are arranged in an array around a tower, on top of which the collector is positioned. All the mirrors must continually track the sun to keep focused on the tower. The power tower design reaches a higher degree of concentration than the parabolic trough design and a higher collector temperature (up to 560°C) can be reached, increasing the power generation efficiency (DOE 2007). • Dish engines are mirrored dishes shaped like a large satellite dish, concentrating solar 4
  5. 5. radiation in the dishs focal point. This design can be very efficient with the receiver integrated into a Stirling engine (DOE 2007). Figure 2: Parabolic Figure 3: A power tower (from troughs DOE 2007)Solar thermal power plants are more complex than photovoltaic plants because electricitygeneration requires the additional step of thermal power generation whereas PV cellsimmediately deliver electricity. This can turn into an advantage, however, because heat canmore easily be stored than electricity. Excess heat can be stored as hot liquid or steam ortransferred to other materials such as molten salt. Solar thermal plants combined with thermalstorage can store heat during the day to deliver power during the night (CNN 2008), and theycan be supplemented with fossil fuels during peak demand periods (DOE 2007). This makesCSP technology more versatile, more predictable, and more reliable, which makes it muchmore useful for large scale utility power generation.The worlds largest solar thermal power plant, and the largest solar energy generating facilityin the world, is Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS), a conglomerate of nineparabolic trough plants in the Mojave desert in California with a combined capacity of 354MW. Some of the plants have been in operation since 1985 (Flagsol 2008). In recent years, aresurgence of interest in solar thermal plants has been observed, especially in Spain and theUnited States (REN21 2007:12). It has been calculated that a solar thermal plant taking up 92by 92 miles of desert could satisfy the electricity demand of the entire U.S. (CNN 2008).In Europe, some experts have called for the development of large solar thermal power plants 5
  6. 6. in the Sahara desert as a source of clean and sustainable energy for the entire regionincluding North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe (EU-MENA). Only a small fraction of theSahara desert area would be needed for the ambitious project (DESERTEC Foundation2009:20).ConclusionsThe main differences between photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal (CSP) power generationcan be summarized as follows: • The CSP technology is geographically severely limited. The optimal sites are desert areas in low latitudes, where strong, direct sunlight can be expected most of the time. Excellent conditions can be found notably in the Southwestern United States, especially the Mojave desert, in the Sahara, in the Spanish Extremadura, and in Australia. • PV systems are more broadly applicable, even in higher latitudes and less sunny climates, like Central and Northern Europe and the Northeastern United States. They are also more scalable, from the pocket calculator to the rooftop solar panel to the large power plant covering thousands of acres. They can be sited close to where the energy is needed. • Where the conditions are right, CSP plants have the advantage because they can be combined with thermal storage and supplemented with fossil fuel. However, the places most suitable, such as the Sahara, are often far away from consumers. Therefore, electricity has to be transported over large distances which necessitates significant infrastructure investments and involves political risks in the case of cross-border transport. 6
  7. 7. References citedCNN (2008), All about: CSP, last updated March 17, 2008( Foundation (2009), Clean Power from Deserts: The DESERTECConcept for Energy, Water and Climate Security. WhiteBook, 4th Edition( (2007), Concentrating Solar Power, Last Updated: July 13, 2007( (2009), Solar Water Disinfection ( (2008), SEGS - Solar Electricity Generating Systems(, Paul (2004), Wind power: Renewable energy for home, farm, andbusiness. Chelsea Green Publishing CompanyJWW (2009), Jewish World Watch: Solar Cooker Project(( Air Force Base (2007), Nellis activates Nations largest PV Array( (2008), Large-Scale Photovoltaic Power Plants, Annual Report2007, Revised Edition, April 2008( (2009), Large-scale photovoltaic power plants range 1 - 50( (2006), Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century:Renewables Global Status Report, 2006 Update( (2007), REN21 Renewables 2007 Global Status Report( 7