This “Secret Ingredient” Generates Solar Power at Night

by | published February 13th, 2014

As solar power enthusiasts know all too well, renewable energy has the same problem that the “normal” generation of electricity does.

It’s how to store all of the energy produced so that it can be used when it’s needed. For solar power, that means even at night.

To date, this conversation has always centered around discovering new battery technologies.

Yet, given the sheer size of power generated, simply serializing batteries, however different these batteries may be, does not seem to solve another fundamental problem.

The roadblock is this: The inability to store energy at its source means there is a significant loss of power once it is moved from generation to transport.

However, a groundbreaking new development in Tonopah, Nevada, may have finally solved this stubborn problem.

It revolves around a “secret ingredient” called molten salt…

Making the Sun Shine…Even at Night

This new departure brings the ability to store power even closer to the generation. In this case, it’s a way to effectively store solar power, making the sun shine – even at night.

It’s the result of a private-sector initiative developed by a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company called SolarReserve LLC.

In fact, on Tuesday, the company announced that the construction of its 110 megawatt (MW) Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project located near Tonopah, Nevada, had entered the commissioning phase.

What makes Crescent Dunes so unique it that is the first utility-scale facility in the world to feature advanced molten salt energy storage capabilities. Its centerpiece is a 540-foot tall power tower… and its use of molten salt.

Flowing through alloy tubes at the top of the tower, the molten salt retains the energy produced as heat, ranging from 500 to 1000 degrees. Even at these high temperatures, the molten salt remains liquid, meaning it can double as a way to transfer and store energy.

According to SolarReserve, this technology can provide up to 10 hours of full power storage, enabling it to provide power on demand  just like any other “normal” power plant does.

As a result of the advanced energy storage technology, the 110 MW project will generate more than 500,000 megawatt-hours per year, or enough to power 75,000 homes during peak electricity periods.

This annual output is more than twice that of other technologies per MW of capacity.

The storage technology also eliminates the need for any backup fossil fuels, such as natural gas, which are needed in other applications to keep the system going during times of either no or low sunshine.

Under a 25-year power purchase agreement, Nevada’s largest electric utility, NV Energy Inc. (NYSE:NVE), will purchase 100% of the electricity generated from Crescent Dunes. Full commercial operation is scheduled for later this year.

Once complete, it will be the only facility of its kind in the world.

Over 10,000 “Billboard-Sized” Mirrors

At the moment, commissioning is still in its initial stages, which includes a system-by-system verification and startup, as well as equipment calibration and testing. Other activities underway at Crescent Dunes include energizing the utility interconnection system and other electrical systems, as well as the first phases of testing and calibration for the heliostat field.

What’s a heliostat field?

Basically, it a giant array of mirrors. This one contains of more than 10,000 “billboard-sized” reflectors that track the sun and total more than one million square meters of glass.

What’s unique to Crescent Dunes is its Heliostat Field Control System that will concentrate the sun’s energy in conjunction with Molten Salt System that will harness, store, and transform the sun’s energy into superheated steam, making this the most advanced solar power plant in the world.

“We are now able to build utility-scale power plants, fueled only by the sun, which operate on-demand, day and night, just like traditional fossil fuel or nuclear power plants,” boasts Kevin Smith, SolarReserve’s CEO.

According to Smith, the company’s technology “solves the intermittency issue that limits the use of other renewable energy projects and thus enables firm, reliable delivery of electricity whether or not the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.”

The Crescent Dunes plant will be the showcase for SolarReserve’s game-changing energy storage technology-what the company calls “a realistic solar energy solution that operates day and night like coal, natural gas, oil, diesel and nuclear plants, but without the harmful emissions or hazardous wastes associated those traditional plants.”

In addition, Crescent Dunes also has  the capability to dry-cool the steam cycle, an environmentally friendly low-water use feature that will saves millions of gallons of water each year.

Once operational, the plant will be the world’s largest solar thermal plant with fully integrated energy storage.

A Major Step Forward in Renewable Financing

What makes this facility even more interesting is the way in which it was financed.

SolarReserve is joined in the project by ACS Cobra, a worldwide leader in the engineering and construction of power plants and thermal solar facilities, and by the equity capital practice of global bank Banco Santander SA (NYSE:SAN).

ACS Cobra’s Nevada-based affiliate, Cobra Thermosolar Plants Inc., is the general contractor, utilizing Nevada and regional subcontractors to perform the work. The project also closed $737 million in project debt along with a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the overall project financing that was completed in the fall of 2011.

This may well become the model of how to bring in public-sector funding for what is primarily a private-sector venture.

In short, quite aside from the success in developing new storage technology, the Crescent Dunes project may actually provide a blueprint for more realistically structured funded renewable energy projects moving forward.

And that in itself is a major step forward.

PS. That’s not the only “green” technology I have my eye on. In fact, my favorite micro-cap stock just hit a homerun with their new “green” fracking method.  Considering the massive push in oil right now, this just might be the “Big One”.  Go here to learn more.

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  1. anthony Durbin
    February 13th, 2014 at 18:23 | #1

    How many hours of northern hemisphere spring sun-shine per day is needed for the plant to generate useable 24hr power per day?
    Please email me the answer / my location is Great Britain

  2. mark reynolds
    February 13th, 2014 at 22:47 | #2

    Does not Berkshire Hathaway own Nevada Electric old ticker nve on NYSE. I cannot find the stock you quote having the ticker NVE on the NYSE.
    Plead explain this to me.
    Thank you

  3. Vasilis Caravitis
    March 7th, 2014 at 00:50 | #3

    I cannot see clearly the advantage of this technology. What would be the energy conversion factor (eficiency) of solar radiation into electricity? Would it be higher than the currently achievable figures (~15%) of PV plants? If it is not, what advantage is the availability of power during the night? If energy can be supplied to the grid during daytime, it would save other sources of expendable power (eg. fossil fuels) which, overall, would lead to the same results.

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