Last week, a YouTube clip of a solar death ray created by a U.S. teenager become an internet sensation, receiving over 1.7 million views and attention from Australia’s major news outlets - perhaps looking for the daily quirky news filler.
While the coverage of this clip focused on the destructive potential of the backyard prototype, the ‘solar-death ray’ reminds us of how relatively simple technological concepts can harness the sun’s powerful radiation to produce energy.
The central idea behind the ray is to reflect and concentrate solar radiation to a specific point. This is the same process used by concentrating solar thermal power plants, albeit on a larger scale, to produce clean renewable energy. Solar thermal plants use a variety of designs such as a parabolic trough, dish or heliostat design that concentrate the sun’s rays to a point of capture.
According to Beyond Zero Emissions, solar thermal plants are the game changer in energy production in Australia. New solar thermal plants can store the energy they capture as heat in molten-salt storage tanks. This heat can be drawn out when required across a 24-hour period, providing ‘baseload’ (24/7) power, even when the sun isn’t shining and it is cloudy overhead. The power generated can match the baseload energy produced from burning gas or coal, dethroning these heavy polluting forms of energy production from the top of the energy game.
Solar thermal technology has a proven record and has been embraced in parts of Spain and the United States with good quality solar resources. The ‘Solar One and Two’ projects successfully demonstrated the viability of the technology in 1990s in the U.S. Now in Spain, after the construction of large-scale plants such as Andasol-1 in Gaudix, and Gemasolar power tower is changing electricity generation. “The solar thermal industry has US$20 billion worth of projects in the pipeline,” says Pat Hearps of the University of Melbourne’s Energy Research Institute. “Spain now has 700MW of installed CST, and by 2013, it will have 2440MW generating clean energy for the European grid.”
The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan released by Beyond Zero Emissions demonstrates that solar thermal and wind power can reliably provide 100 per cent of Australia’s electricity needs. The technical plan recommends the construction of twelve CST plants, with a preference towards the use of ‘power towers’ to capture radiation from a field of reflective mirrors (heliostats).
Australia has a number of sites ideally suited for solar thermal plants. The levels of solar exposure at some locations compare, if not exceed, solar resources in North Africa’s Saharan region. Responding to a Parsons Brinckehoff report that highlighted Queensland’s excellent solar resource, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said that her state could “match the current world leaders in solar thermal development.”
CST power in Australia is held back by poor policy and a lack of serious investment in the renewable energy industry. Breakthrough renewable energy technologies such as solar thermal with storage require government targeted policies to get off the ground. Climate commentator Leigh Ewbank points out in his recent article that even the notoriously cautious Climate Institute realises that “carbon pricing is not enough to replace the investment required for clean energy technologies”. Addressing climate change through market mechanisms alone, such as carbon pricing, will not be sufficient if we are to decarbonise our economy over the next decade.
Federal and State Governments may be happy to set targets for carbon emission reductions. But these targets mean little if they are not backed up by policy or detailed road maps for us to achieve emission cuts. Climate change programs such as the Solar Flagship Program, were the first to get cut as the Gillard government made ‘adjustments’ to accommodate the flood levy. Such action suggests renewable energy investment is not a genuine priority for Labor.
Solar thermal power represents the future for sustainable energy production, but will need the government to support its growth and development. It’s about time the policymakers got their priorities right.
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