Solar Power - From the Rooftops to the Oceans and the Sky
In previous blog postings I have expressed my concerns about the relative return on investment and the economic fairness of roof-top solar panels. But I am also a big fan of solar power which is, after all, the most abundant and the most reliable energy source that we have at our disposal. In this blog I want to draw attention to some encouraging news in the industrial development of solar power. I also want to point out a few very fanciful uses of solar power that I believe demonstrate some of the future potential of this resource.
First, it is an exciting time to be involved with Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). With the commissioning of both the Solana Plant in Arizona and the Ivanpah Plant in Nevada over the next few months the global CSP generating capacity will almost double. The Solana Plant is particularly encouraging because it incorporates molten salt storage allowing the Plant to run for up to 6 hours after sunset. It is not the first plant to incorporate molten salt storage but it is the biggest.
Half a world away CSP developments in North Africa and the Middle East are starting to gain traction. The Noor I CSP Plant broke ground in Morocco in May, 2013 with financial support from the German government. In the same month the Internationally backed Climate Investment Funds approved a revised plan for the rapid development of CSP in North Africa. This plan aligns with the Desertec Foundation's vision of utilizing solar resources in desert regions to transform local economies while supporting a transition to sustainable energy resources.
This year the government of Saudi Arabia made a massive committment to the development of solar power with the goal of converting most of the oil-fired desalination facilities in the Kingdom to solar power. That would provide some relief for global oil supplies (currently almost 2% of global oil production is used in Middle East desalination plants) as well as representing another very substantial increase in global CSP capacity.
The only negative development in the world of CSP is the 180 degree change to support mechanisms for the development of this technology in Spain.
Prior to 2013 Spain had been a world leader in developing CSP and is home to the two premier CSP engineering firms. However, the elimination of almost all financial supports for CSP developers in August, 2013 has led to a collapse of CSP projects in Spain. Luckily there continue to be many new opportunities in Africa, the Middle East and the U.S.
Photo-Voltaic solar panels have had more of a mixed year in 2013. Module prices seem to have bottomed out and the resulting price competition has led to the bankruptcy of a number of manufacturers. In jurisdictions where the penetration of solar panels has reached double digits as a percentage of normal load incentives are being cut back and in some cases regulatory barriers are being raised, most notably the capacity studies in Hawaii. In Arizona monthly service fees are being added to the utility bills for homeowners with rooftop solar panels. The many challenges facing PV solar represent a serious risk to the further development of this resource.
Although dropping solar cell prices and associated reductions in margins are disrupting the supply side of the PV solar business these developments are making it possible to showcase solar power in ways never before possible.
The team behind the Solar Impulse solar-powered airplane announced that they will attempt an around-the world flight in 2015 entirely on solar power. This well-funded and experienced team has been working for more than 10 years to make solar powered flight a reality.
Solar Impulse is not the only game in town when it comes to harnessing the energy of the sun to power an aircraft. Flying somewhat under the radar is Eric Raymond and the team behind the Sunseeker series of aircraft. The newest member of the family, the Sunseeker Duo (shown above) is currently undergoing flight tests. It will be the speediest solar-powered aircraft ever built. It will also be the first to be able to carry a passenger. I would encourage my readers to visit these sites and if you like what you see consider making a donation which will help these organizations continue their ground-breaking work.
Shifting from the skies to the oceans, the world's largest solar-powered ship, MS Türanor recieved a new life mission as a research vessel after completing the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the earth's oceans. It has set off on a Swiss-sponsored voyage to study the seasonal changes in the behaviour of the Gulf Stream.
These innovative applications of solar power demonstrate the potential of an energy source that can meet many of our current needs. Efficient and cost-effective energy storage remains elusive but with a dedicated global effort storage solutions will be developed. In the meantime it is interesting to watch as solar power moves from the hand-held calculator to powering transcontinental flights and beyond.