Solar thermal systems use mirrors to focus sunlight, generating temperatures high enough to produce steam to drive a turbine. One of the advantages of the solar thermal approach, versus conventional photovoltaics that convert sunlight directly into electricity, is that heat can be stored cheaply and used when needed to generate electricity. In all solar thermal plants, some heat is stored in the fluids circulating through the system. This evens out any short fluctuations in sunlight and lets the plant generate electricity for some time after the sun goes down. But adding storage systems would let the plant ride out longer periods of cloud cover and generate power well into, or even throughout, the night. Such long-term storage could be needed if solar is to provide a large share of the total power supply.
BrightSource Energy has become the latest solar thermal power company to develop a system for generating power when the sun isn’t shining. The company says the technology can lower the cost of solar power and make it more reliable, helping it compete with conventional sources of electricity.
BrightSource is using a variation on an approach to storage that’s a decade old: heating up a molten salt—typically, a combination of sodium and potassium nitride—and then storing it in a tank. To generate electricity, the molten salt is pumped through a heat exchanger to generate steam. BrightSource CEO John Woolard says one big factor in making this technology economically attractive is the use of power towers—in which mirrors focus sunlight on a central tower—that generate higher temperatures than other solar thermal designs. That higher temperature makes it possible to store more energy using a smaller amount of molten salt. “It’s a much more efficient system and much more cost effective, overall”