Friday, May 29, 2009

A High Sodium Solar Solution?

The Los Angeles Times today answers two vexing questions for Californians:

Question 1: "Is there a more effective and evironmentally responsible way to leverage the power of solar energy in the production of electricity?"

Answer: Maybe. (More on that below.)

Question 2: "What the hell is that??" (Referring to a bizarre industrial facility in the desert near Barstow that has long been a curiosity for countless drivers making their way up I-15 from Southern California.)

Answer: It's a shuttered solar power plant that made innovative use of molten salt technology-- not a movie set or a light house.

The solar installation in the Barstow desert may be closed, but the Times reports that the process perfected there could be reserrected soon.

A Santa Monica company called SolarReserve has secured $140 million in venture capital financing to produce electricity using molten salt, water, and mirrors.

The process, as described by the Times, works like this:

"It would use an array of 15,000 heliostats, or large tilting mirrors about 25 feet wide, to direct sunlight to a solar collector atop a 600-foot-tall tower -- somewhat like a lighthouse in reverse.

The mirrors would heat up molten salt flowing through the receiver to more than 1,000 degrees, hot enough to turn water into powerful steam in a device called a heat exchanger. The steam, like that coming out of a nozzle of a boiling tea kettle, would drive a turbine to create electricity.

The molten salt, once cooled, would then be pumped back through the solar collector to start the process all over again."

The environmental benefits are myriad: zero emissions, far less water consumption, and limited ecological impact from the mirrors surrounding the solar collector.

The earliest the plant is likely to go online is 2013.