The majority of the world’s electricity today—whether generated by coal, gas, nuclear, oil or biomass—comes from creating a hot fluid.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies produce electricity by concentrating direct-beam solar irradiance to heat a liquid, solid or gas that is then used in a downstream process for electricity generation. The majority of the world’s electricity today—whether generated by coal, gas, nuclear, oil or biomass—comes from creating a hot fluid.

CSP simply provides an alternative heat source. Therefore, an attraction of this technology is that it builds on much of the current know-how on power generation in the world today. And it will benefit not only from ongoing advances in solar concentrator technology, but also as improvements continue to be made in steam and gas turbine cycles.

Any concentrating solar system depends on direct-beam irradiation as opposed to global horizontal irradiation as for flat-plate systems. Thus, sites must be chosen accordingly, and the best sites for CSP are in near-equatorial cloud-free regions such as the North African desert.

The average capacity factor of a solar plant will depend on the quality of the solar resource. Some of the key advantages of CSP include the following: 1) it can be installed in a range of capacities to suit varying applications and conditions, from tens of kW (dish/Stirling systems) to multiple MWs (tower and trough systems); 2) it can integrate thermal storage for peaking loads (less than one hour) and intermediate loads (three to six hours); 3) it has modular and scalable  components; and 4) it does not require exotic materials. This section discusses various types of CSP systems and thermal storage for these systems.

Large-scale CSP plants most commonly concentrate sunlight by reflection, as opposed to refraction with lenses. Concentration is either to a line (linear focus) as in trough or linear Fresnel systems or to a point (point focus) as in central-receiver or dish systems.

In trough concentrators, long rows of parabolic reflectors concentrate the solar irradiance by the order of 70 to 100 times onto a heat collection element (HCE) mounted along the reflector’s focal line. The troughs track the Sun around one axis, with the axis typically being oriented north-south.

The HCE comprises a steel inner pipe (coated with a solar-selective surface) and a glass outer tube, with an evacuated space in between. Heat-transfer oil is circulated through the steel pipe and heated to about 390°C. The hot oil from numerous rows of troughs is passed through a heat exchanger to generate steam for a conventional steam turbine generator (Rankine cycle). Land requirements are of the order of 2 km2 for a 100-MWe plant, depending on the collector technology and assuming no storage. Alternative heat transfer fluids to the synthetic oil commonly used in trough receivers, such as steam and molten salt, are being developed to enable higher temperatures and overall efficiencies, as well as integrated thermal storage in the case of molten salt.

Linear Fresnel reflectors use long lines of flat or nearly flat mirrors, which allow the moving parts to be mounted closer to the ground, thus reducing structural costs. (In contrast, large trough reflectors presently use thermal bending to achieve the curve required in the glass surface.) The receiver is a fixed inverted cavity that can have a simpler construction than evacuated tubes and be more flexible in sizing. The attraction of linear Fresnel reflectors is that the installed costs on a per square metre basis can be lower than for trough systems. However, the annual optical performance is less than that for a trough.

Central receivers (or power towers), which are one type of point-focus collector, are able to generate much higher temperatures than troughs and linear Fresnel reflectors, although requiring two-axis tracking as the Sun moves through solar azimuth and solar elevation. This higher temperature is a benefit because higher-temperature thermodynamic cycles used for generating electricity are more efficient. This technology uses an array of mirrors (heliostats), with each mirror tracking the Sun and reflecting the light onto a fixed receiver atop a tower. Temperatures of more than 1,000°C can be reached. Central receivers can easily generate the maximum temperatures of advanced steam turbines, can use high-temperature molten salt as the heat transfer fluid, and can be used to power gas turbine (Brayton) cycles.

Dish systems include an ideal optical reflector and therefore are suitable for applications requiring high temperatures. Dish reflectors are paraboloid and concentrate the solar irradiation onto a receiver mounted at the focal point, with the receiver moving with the dish. Dishes have been used to power Stirling engines at 900°C, and also for steam generation. There is now significant operational experience with dish/Stirling engine systems, and commercial rollout is planned. In 2010, the capacity of each Stirling engine is small—on the order of 10 to 25 kWelectric. The largest solar dishes have a 485-m2 aperture and are in research facilities or demonstration plants.

In thermal storage, the heat from the solar field is stored prior to reaching the turbine. Thermal storage takes the form of sensible or latent heat storage. The solar field needs to be oversized so that enough heat can be supplied to both operate the turbine during the day and, in parallel, charge the thermal storage. The term ‘solar multiple’ refers to the total solar field area installed divided by the solar field area needed to operate the turbine at design point without storage.

Thermal storage for CSP systems needs to be at a temperature higher than that needed for the working fluid of the turbine. As such, system temperatures are generally between 400°C and 600°C, with the lower end for troughs and the higher end for towers. Allowable temperatures are also dictated by the limits of the media available. Examples of storage media include molten salt (presently comprising separate hot and cold tanks), steam accumulators (for short-term storage only), solid ceramic particles, high-temperature phase-change materials, graphite, and high-temperature concrete. The heat can then be drawn from the storage to generate steam for a turbine, as and when needed. Another type of storage associated with high-temperature CSP is thermochemical storage, where solar energy is stored chemically. 

Thermal energy storage integrated into a system is an important attribute of CSP. Until recently, this has been primarily for operational purposes, providing 30 minutes to 1 hour of full-load storage. This eases the impact of thermal transients such as clouds on the plant, assists start-up and shut-down, and provides benefits to the grid. Trough plants are now designed for 6 to 7.5 hours of storage, which is enough to allow operation well into the evening when peak demand can occur and tariffs are high.

Trough plants in Spain are now operating with molten-salt storage. In the USA, Abengoa Solar’s 280-MW Solana trough project, planned to be operational by 2013, intends to integrate six hours of thermal storage. Towers, with their higher temperatures, can charge and store molten salt more efficiently.

Gemasolar, a 17-MWe solar tower project under construction in Spain, is designed for 15 hours of storage, giving a 75% annual capacity factor. Thermal storage is a means of providing dispatchability. Hybridization with non-renewable fuels is another way in which CSP can be designed to be dispatchable. Although the back-up fuel itself may not be renewable (unless it is biomass-derived), it provides significant operational benefits for the turbine and improves solar yield. CSP applications range from small distributed systems of tens of kW to large centralized power stations of hundreds of MW.

Stirling and Brayton cycle generation in CSP can be installed in a wide range from small distributed systems to clusters forming medium- to large-capacity power stations. The dish/Stirling technology has been under development for many years, with advances in dish structures, high-temperature receivers, use of hydrogen as the circulating working fluid, as well as some experiments with liquid metals and improvements in Stirling engines—all bringing the technology closer to commercial deployment.

Although the individual unit size may only be of the order of tens of kWe, power stations having a large capacity of up to 800 MWe have been proposed by aggregating many modules. Because each dish represents a stand-alone electricity generator, from the perspective of distributed generation there is great flexibility in the capacity and rate at which units are installed. However, the dish technology is less likely to integrate thermal storage.

An alternative to the Stirling engine is the Brayton cycle, as used by gas turbines. The attraction of these engines for CSP is that they are already in significant production, being used for distributed generation fired with landfill gas or natural gas. In the solarized version, the air is instead heated by concentrated solar irradiance from a tower or dish reflector. It is also possible to integrate with a biogas or natural gas combustor to back up the solar. Several developments are currently underway based on solar tower and micro-turbine combinations.

Centralized CSP benefits from the economies of scale offered by large-scale plants. Based on conventional steam and gas turbine cycles, much of the technological know-how of large power station design and practice is already in place. However, although larger capacity has significant cost benefits, it has also tended to be an inhibitor until recently because of the much larger investment commitment required from investors. In addition, larger power stations require strong infrastructural support, and new or augmented transmission capacity may be needed.

The earliest commercial CSP plants were the 354 MW of Solar Electric Generating Stations in California—deployed between 1985 and 1991—that continue to operate commercially today. As a result of the positive experiences and lessons learned from these early plants, the trough systems tend to be the technology most often applied today as the CSP industry grows.

In Spain, regulations to date have mandated that the largest capacity unit that can be installed is 50 MWe to help stimulate industry competition. In the USA, this limitation does not exist, and proposals are in place for much larger plants—280 MWe in the case of troughs and 400-MWe plants (made up of four modules) based on towers. There are presently two operational solar towers of 10 and 20 MWe, and all tower developers plan to increase capacity in line with technology development, regulations and investment capital. Multiple dishes have also been proposed as a source of aggregated heat, rather than distributed-generation Stirling or Brayton units.

CSP or PV electricity can also be used to power reverse-osmosis plants for desalination. Dedicated CSP desalination cycles based on pressure and temperature are also being developed for desalination.