Solar concentrators – dreams of renewable electricity and a new grab for desert land

Virtually all of the electricity that we use involves turbines, which are sophisticated plumbing devices. Usually the turbine is wound up by a heat process most often burning gas, oil, or coal to heat water into steam to drive the turbine. Nuclear energy does not involve burning but still heats water into steam. If you live or play in Las Vegas the electricity that makes the city possible comes from the massive turbines of the Hoover Dam.

Photovoltaic cells have heat process and no turbines for their electric generation, but these are very small producers of electrical energy compared with gas, oil, coal and nuclear energy and are presently expensive because they need a great deal of energy to produce current, so that their lifetime emission is around 58 grams per kWh compared with 900 or more for coal and around 2 for nuclear power.

However there is another way to use turbines and their associated plumbing using sunshine to heat water into steam for creating large scale electricity. The process of solar thermal power used very strong concentrated sunshine with solar collectors tracking the sun in very hot places to create energy usually by heating water. Like everyone who has a modern solar thermal water or space heating system will know, storing hot water is easy; storing electricity is much harder.

So if you build a solar thermal power plant to produce electricity fuel the burning does not take and you can store the energy you created in the day time but did not convert to electricity as heat over night.

The disadvantage of solar thermal power is that you need to use up a great deal of land; virtually all of the land that is most suitable will be in deserts, some distance away from human habitation which will be where the power will be used and there will be power losses in the transmission of electricity over vast distances, but such is humanity’s desire for electricity and so strong is the imperative for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions that in the long run transmission losses and efficiency losses hardly matter when the fuel – sunshine – is free.

Speculators have understood this, although not perfectly. There has been a land rush in the Mojave Desert and lease claims have been filed on 700,000 acres of land owned by the United States Federal Government in Nevada, with Goldman Sachs, no longer willing to speculate in the clay feet of the derivatives’ market, taking a position on the fundamental of energy and hoping that a modest investment today will reap rich rewards in the shape of solar thermal power tomorrow. It has filed just under half the land claims.

In California, which has an obligation to provide 20% of its energy by renewable means by the end of the year after next (2010) over a million acres of land has been acquired by speculators in the hope that they can use the land for solar thermal power plants.

I suppose what is going on is a bit like a gold rush, because not every site is suitable and because the speculators frequently misunderstand the technology available. Some of them will take financial hits, especially if they are playing with borrowed money, but others will do well if they can use the land to install solar concentrators and the turbines needed to create the electricity.

What impact will development of large parts of the desert have on the environment? It is difficult to assess. Mostly a desert is, by definition, much freer of flora and fauna than other habitats and some deserts are virtually entirely free of it. There is unlikely to be a significant impact on wildlife, although visions of a web of power pylons crossing deserts may not be pleasant, they will be better than visions of increasing galloping emissions causing more and more rapid climate change.

In the meantime although there are projects in places like Seville which produce useful power from concentrators, large scale development is still years away. Humans created many deserts by inappropriate land use and for years those deserts have been useless to humans. That may change.


5 Responses

  1. South Australia’s outback Simpson Desert will be closed for the first time this summer to prevent visitors from dying in the extreme heat, officials said Tuesday. The Simpson Desert Conservation Park and Regional Reserve

  2. Some Research at Salford University; Thin Film Solar panels thst capture 99% of Sunlight on their surface and 20% efficiency:

    The comment above is interesting how do the Australians plan to close a desert?…! Maybe they will give visitors XXXX Beer? That should do the trick.

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