Solar Thermal Electric Power Gaining Momentum

There are two types of solar plants generating power for the U.S. electrical grid. One uses photovoltaic (PV) panels to convert the sun’s energy into an electric current.. The other uses a field of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a boiler that feeds on-site generators in what are called conentrating solar power (CSP) plants. PV has grown faster than CSP, because of rapidly declining photovoltaic prices and comparatively favorable capital costs. But now thermal solar is poised for faster growth.

A new report from the International Energy Agency says that new CSP components and systems are coming to commercial maturity, holding the promise of increased efficiency, declining costs and higher value through increased flexibility. From a system perspective, CSP offers significant advantages over PV, mostly because of its built-in thermal storage capabilities. CSP can adjust the flow of power and can be dispatched at the request of grid operators, when, for example, demand peaks in the late afternoon, in the evening or early morning. PV generation, on the other hand, is at its best in the middle of the day.

The report concludes that adding CSP to PV, solar power could provide up to 27% of global electricity by 2050, and exceed today’s leading sources — oil and coal — to become the number one source of electricity globally as early as 2040.