Here Comes the Sun: Making Solar Competitive


Burning high in the sky, he sits and watches us, just doing his job. Wearing an ironic pair of sunglasses, he keeps us warm during the day, bronzes our skin by the beach, and makes earth inhabitable. He does quite a bit for us, despite his dwelling 93 million miles away. But with concerns over the climate rising faster than the temperature, the Department of Energy is calling on him to play a bigger role.

With the costs of energy walking a tight rope, and an economy struggling to recover itself after a fall, the Department of Energy turned once more to Mr. Sun. Solar energy has been a good idea for a while, but because it can’t be stored, and because it only produces during part of the day, it can’t make the impact that many think it should.

Yesterday Secretary Chu announced that the DOE would supply up to $52.5 million for Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) research and development in order to demonstrate systems that are capable of providing low-cost electrical power both day and night. The announcement yesterday further supported the Obama administration’s push to create new jobs and shift to more sustainable living, making solar energy competitive with conventional grid electricity.

“Low-cost renewable energy generation that includes energy storage is one key to our efforts to diversify domestic energy sources and create new jobs,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said. “By investing in the development of low-cost solar technologies we can pave the way toward faster deployment of carbon-free, large-scale energy sources.”

Concentrating Solar Power technologies capture the sun’s energy as heat, which drives an engine or turbine to produce electricity. CSP plants can include low-cost energy storage, which means that they can supply electricity even after the sun has retired for the night. For the most part, current CSP technologies used in utility-scale power plants don’t have the capability for storage and operate only during daytime hours. It is hard to be competitive when you’re sleeping while the other team is working.

That’s what this funding is for. These projects will seek to improve technology system designs to extend operation to an average of about 18 hours per day, a level of production that would make it possible for a CSP plant to displace a traditional coal power plant.

Photo Credit: Jeff Henshaw via flickr under Creative Commons License

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