Pros and cons of concentrating solar power systems

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A tall tower in the countryside with a bright light at the top

Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are developing new methods of efficiently producing clean energy by using renewable sources like solar power.

Solar power has been explored as a reliable energy source for decades, but in recent years the push to advance solar energy technology has accelerated. Aspiring electrical engineers should evaluate the costs and benefits of using concentrating solar power before deciding to specialize in this industry.

What is solar power?

Solar power, the process of converting the sun’s rays into electricity, is typically accomplished using two different types of solar power systems:

Photovoltaic system – This system uses solar cells to convert sunlight directly in electricity.

  • Solar cells are made using a semiconducting material, and the light that they absorb from the sun flows through them to produce electricity – this is called the photovoltaic effect.
  • Photovoltaic systems generally use multiple solar cells affixed to a larger panel.
  • Photovoltaic solar systems are becoming more common because they are the most affordable option for homeowners to purchase, install and maintain.

 Concentrating solar power (CSP) – This process of harvesting solar energy uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a single point, where it’s converted into thermal energy or heat. The heat can then be used to produce electricity.

  • There are four types of concentrating solar power systems:
    • Linear concentrator system – The sun’s energy is focused into a fluid-filled receiver tube, and when it’s heated it spins a turbine to power a generator.
    • Dish/engine system – This smaller, less efficient CSP systems uses a dish of mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a point to heat a liquid, powering an engine that produces electricity.
    • Power Tower System – A group of flat mirrors track the sun and reflect sunlight directly onto a receiver that is affixed on a tall tower. Most towers function by heating a liquid to power a generator, but some experimental designs use molten salts to facilitate more efficient transfers of energy.
    • Thermal Storage – Most solar power systems are limited by the inability to produce energy after sunset or on cloudy days. Thermal storage systems enable solar power systems to concentrate thermal energy directly into a storage system or battery.
  • Concentrating solar power systems are usually large and are therefore used mostly by utility companies.

What are the benefits of using CSP?

CSP offers many advantages to a community. Since these systems rely on the sun, a renewable resource, they produce no pollution while generating power. CSP systems can store energy in batteries that can be tapped for energy on demand, which helps the systems more consistently meet local power demands, especially during peak usage times.

CSP systems have low operating costs and produce power at a high efficiency rate. Engineers have recently discovered that certain CSP technology can be integrated into fossil fuel power plants, cutting carbon emissions and maximizing efficiency during the processing of both resources. Concentrating solar power currently has a lot of potential to reshape the global energy industry, and as the technology will gain more widespread use as it continues to improve.

Should people be cautious of concentrating solar power?

Concentrating solar power is sustainable and incredibly versatile, but it’s not always the best option for some communities. The upfront costs of installing solar power infrastructure and thermal energy storage systems can be costly.

Without thermal energy storage systems, a CSP system can only generate energy during the daytime, when solar energy is available. When a CSP system is a community’s primary power source, the residents may experience intermittent blackouts if energy production was restricted by consistent overcast weather.

Aside from high costs and performance limitations, CSP systems have other drawbacks. Covering large surface areas with solar panels could damage wildlife habitats or promote deforestation. Also, manufacturing solar panels produces many potent greenhouse gases that can contribute significantly to global warming.

Once these problems have been solved, concentrating solar power systems could see use in countries across the globe.

The U.S. government supports concentrating solar power systems

CSP plants have the potential to produce enough power to support 70,000 homes, according to energy.gov, making them a viable solution to replace fossil fuels.

The U.S. Energy Department is aggressively working to lower the cost of CSP systems by 2020. As these systems become more affordable, they hope CPS systems will be phased into utility networks across the globe, which could lower carbon emissions without significantly reducing energy production rates.

The U.S. government offers incentives to companies that use solar energy systems because they recognize the value of using sustainable and renewable energy sources to power the country. By completing a master’s in electrical engineering degree program, engineering professionals can refine their knowledge of solar energy systems designs and create new ideas to advance solar power technology.

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At the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, graduates of the online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering program are equipped with the skills to research, design, develop, and test new technologies and industry applications — and to position themselves as leaders.

Sources:

http://energyinformative.org/solar-energy-pros-and-cons/#intermittent

http://www.seia.org/policy/solar-technology/concentrating-solar-power

https://www.nrel.gov/workingwithus/re-csp.html

https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/concentrating-solar-power