Using Steam to Store Solar Energy Efficiently

Thermal-power plants could solve some of the problems with solar power by turning sunlight into steam and storing heat for cloudy days.

Published: 27-Sep-2007

Solar proponents love to boast that just a few hundred square kilometers' worth of photovoltaic solar panels installed in Southwestern deserts could power the United States. Their schemes come with a caveat, of course: without backup power plants or expensive investments in giant batteries, flywheels, or other energy-storage systems, this solar-power supply would fluctuate wildly with each passing cloud (not to mention with the sun's daily rise and fall and seasonal ebbs and flows). Solar-power startup Ausra, based in Palo Alto, thinks it has the solution: solar-thermal-power plants that turn sunlight into steam and efficiently store heat for cloudy days.

"Fossil-fuel proponents often say that solar can't do the job, that solar can't run at night, solar can't run the economy," says David Mills, Ausra's founder and chairman. "That's true if you don't have storage." He says that solar-thermal plants are the solution because storing heat is much easier than storing electricity. Mills estimates that, thanks to that advantage, solar-thermal plants capable of storing 16 hours' worth of heat could provide more than 90 percent of current U.S. power demand at prices competitive with coal and natural gas. "There's almost no limit to how much you can put into the grid," he says.

Major utilities are buying the idea. In July, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) signed a 25-year deal with Ausra competitor Solel Solar Systems of Beit Shemesh, Israel, to buy power from a 553-megawatt solar-thermal plant that Solel is developing in California's Mojave Desert. The plant will supply 400,000 homes in northern and central California when it is completed in 2011. Florida Power & Light, meanwhile, hired Solel to upgrade the 1980s-era solar-thermal plants it operates in the Mojave.

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