What is Concentrated Solar?

Concentrated solar power or CSP systems are used primarily for commercial applications and have been used successfully in the United States and other locations for more than 30 years to power large commercial buildings and much more. They do however have some drawbacks.

solar concentrator dish to illustrate concentrated solar power

Solar concentrating technologies use lenses or large mirrors and an intricate and customized tracking system to focus sunlight coming from a large area onto a specific smaller area.

This light, once focused, is used for heating purposes or directed onto photovoltaic surfaces for providing power.

Benefits of Using Concentrated Power from the Sun

Concentrated solar power systems do require a good amount of land to operate optimally. The installation of a system will disrupt local widlife, however that's pretty much where the impact on the environment stops.

This type of power is beneficial because it uses the sun's rays to generate power instead of relying on messy fossil fuels to do the same work. The big difference is that solar energy is clean and leaves behind no residual effects on the environment (unlike fossil fuels).

It is also easily integrated into any existing power system, which makes it a very attractive option for just about any application.

Also, it's the most reliable and cost-effective way of providing power for large buildings and operations. It can be installed anywhere sunlight is readily available. Once the system is up and running, the operating costs are minimal.

Drawbacks to using Concentrating Solar Power

There is a debate within the environmental and solar energy communites over whether it is useful to create large scale solar energy facilities in remote locations. Yes, it is certainly better than using fossil fuels, but consider some of the other environmental impacts.

  • A large scale CSP plant will inevitably cause significant disruption to the animals, plants and complex ecosystems on the Earth in that area. Even though it may be located in a big desert that may seem to serve little purpose, that ecological disturbance does have an impact on the region.

    The good news is, some CSP companies are working to reduce their environmental impact. One company that made news recently is eSolar which is committed to building their plants on previously developed land so that they don't disrupt natural habitats.

  • A big, remote solar power plant will require long transmission lines in order to relay energy to the users of that energy who live in urban or suburban areas. Some companies are remedying this problem by creating smaller scale plants which are closer to where people live.

  • Solar thermal plants use lots and lots of, you guessed it ... water! Many remote locations that can be used for solar plants exists in the middle of a desert where water is scarce. Some innovative CSP companies such as Bright Source Energy in California are developing new technologies that require less water.

  • Some people argue that these large scale solar plants, besides being environmentally less friendly than residential solar systems, and potentially more costly, also perpetuate the business model of large, corporate owned utilities.

large solar concentrator dish array to illustrate concentrated solar power

Three Types of Concentrated Solar Power Systems

  • Linear Concentrating Solar Power Collectors - there are two types of Linear CSP's: the linear Fresnel reflector system and the parabolic trough system.

    Both of these systems use large mirrors to capture the sun's energy. Essentially, once the energy has been captured, it is used to concentrate the sunlight onto what is called a linear receiver tube, which turns the fluid contained within into steam, which is then used to generate (a great amount of) heat and/or power.

  • Dish/Engine System - this type of CSP technology generates perhaps 3 to 24 or 25 kilowatts of electricity, so it is used for smaller applications. The solar concentrator, which captures the sunlight, and the power conversion unit work together to create electricity using mirrors and a central engine.

  • Power Tower Systems - huge flat mirrors are lined up and used to direct the sun's rays to the top of a tower where a receiver containing fluid captures it. The fluid heats up when the sun hits it and generates steam. The steam is then used to power a generator, which then generates electricity. Voila!

Residential Applications Using Concentrated Solar Power

This is still a relatively new concept as far as applications for residential locations. Although there are a few people experimenting with concentrated power systems on their homes, the most viable option currently for residential use is to heat hot water.

The other way that this type of solar energy is being used in residential applications is to build it into newly constructed (zero energy) homes.

There are solar companies who are researching and testing the viability of using concentrated power from the sun to power appliances and to provide heat and air for existing homes or ones that want to make the switch over to this ultra-efficient type of solar power.

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