Did “The Solar Age” begin in Spain in March 2007?
When I wrote in December 2008 (see reference below) claiming that, “The Solar Age has Begun!” was I, like Frank Schuman a century earlier, jumping the gun?
Last week I wrote about the building from 1984 – 1990 of the excellent SEGS at Kramer Junction, which was followed by more wasted decades. So why might it be different this time? Climate Change, Peak Oil and improvements to solar technologies are three good reasons. Also now the evidence of widespread uptake is rapidly gathering.
In 2008 I claimed that “The Solar Age” had begun in the spring of 2007. In March the 11 Mw solar power tower PS10 opened in Seville, Spain. Then in June the 64 Mw parabolic trough Nevada Solar One opened near Las Vegas, USA. Two small power stations do not constitute an epochal shift unless they are the forerunners of countless others.
Since PS10 opened in March 2007 the Spanish solar industry has made tremendous progress. If one looks at this list of solar power stations http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_solar_thermal_power_stations what is so impressive is that in just 3 years they have opened a second solar power tower, the PS20, a tiny Fresnel reflector system and half a dozen 50 Mw parabolic trough power stations and have another 37 x 50Mw trough systems under construction plus single smaller trough, power tower and dish systems. The Spanish work in units of 50 Mw as an upper limit to benefit from the feed-in-tariff, but group the units together, so for example Andasol 1 was completed in 2008, Andasol 2 in 2009, Andasol 3 and 4 are under construction and units 6 and 7 have been announced. This represents a serious roll-out of the technology. Spain is the only country to have achieved this and their companies are now world leaders. Perhaps as the “Fossil Fuel Age” can be said to have begun in the UK and in 1769 with James Watt’s stream engine, so “The Solar Age” may just have begun in Spain in March 2007 with PS10.
Next week: Current Global Solar Developments.
Today I want to start writing about Concentrating Solar Power, or CSP for short. (Anyone who’s been to my talks will have heard me enthusing about this technology.) CSP is where mirrors and lenses are used to focus the sun’s energy onto a thermal receiver and then usually make steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity. There are now a huge range of designs, materials and size. Like wind generated electricity this technology was first developed in the late Nineteenth Century but then largely ignored through the decades of cheap oil from the 1920’s to 1970’s. Since then progress has been rather stop and start. If humanity is serious about wanting to solve climate change and preserve a comfortable standard of living then this is perhaps the single most important way of generating electricity globally, and requires massive investment. There are some signs that CSP is being ramped up. So far not to the extent of wind, but with even greater potential. Next week I’ll write about current developments, this week some history.
Augustine Mouchot started working on solar-steam engines in the 1860’s, and by 1913 Frank Schuman had built the solar driven irrigation system at Meadi in Egypt. Schuman said about a hundred years ago “One thing I feel sure of… is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.” He also declared that “The Solar Age” had begun.
Tragically humanity discovered cheap oil in the 1920’s and we slide ever further into our fossil fuel addiction. With the oil shocks of the 1970’s the rising price of oil triggered a new wave of solar energy projects in lots of countries, utilizing lots of different mirror configurations; parabolic troughs, solar towers with fields of sun tracking heliostats, dishes and compact linear Fresnel reflectors but all at the small experimental stage. Only the amazing SEGS Solar Energy Generating Systems at Kramer Junction in California’s Mojave Desert was a full scale, commercial, grid-connected, solar power station. It was built in 9 stages from 1984 and 1990, and has worked reliably producing 354 Mw of carbon free electricity ever since.
Unfortunately the oil price fell in the 1980’s and the political will to further develop this extremely useful technology dried up. But over the last decade or so with increasing concern over climate change, energy security and in the USA trade imbalances, a new wave of interest has been slowly unfolding, and is now beginning to take-of, exactly one hundred years after Frank Schuman declared the Solar Age to have started.
For more on Frank Schuman see (sometimes his name is spelt the German way with a “c”, sometime the American way, without) http://www.solarhaven.org/SolarHistoryQuiz1.htm
SEGS Kramer Junction see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Energy_Generating_Systems
For photos of solar towers, parabolic troughs, Fresnel lenses and dishes see http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/csp.htm
Today I want to write about the increasing scale of wind power. Humanity has used windmills to grid corn, pump water and saw logs for many centuries, and propel sailing boats for even longer. Wind turbines were first used from the 1880’s to generate electricity on a small experimental scale. The modern wind industry was born in Denmark in 1979 as several companies started making turbines commercially. They were 20 to 30 Kw each, compared with the current largest turbines such as the Enercon E-126 which is 7 Mw.: about a 300 fold increase in scale. Increases in scale were small to start with but seem to be getting increasingly rapid.
The first modern wind farm is generally reckoned to be Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire, USA, which opened in 1980 with 20 x 30 Kw turbines: 600 Kw capacity. Currently the largest one actually completed is Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas, which uses 627 variously sized turbines to generate a total power output of 780 Mw: a scale increase of over 1000 times the Crotched Mountain wind farm. The question now is how long will the trend to increase scale continue? There are projects currently underway or in the planning stages which will push this upper limit a long way.
The London Array in the Thames Estuary is planned to provide 1,000 Mw, cover 90 square miles, and the first phase is due to be completed in 2012. This though is dwarfed by plans for the Markbygden project in Northern Sweden, which is due to produce 4,000 Mw and be completed by 2020. By then China will probably have completed the even larger Ordos Renewable Energy Park, which is planned to have a total capacity of 11,950 Mw, of which 6,950 is expected to be wind with concentrating solar, solar pv, biomass and pumped storage hydro making up the rest. Ordos, in total, will be 20,000 times the size of Crotched Mountain!
I do see a place for vast scale multi-renewable projects like Ordos, and a supergrid. Not exactly “Small is Beautiful”. More like “Massive is Wonderful”. That is if we’re serious about closing down the global coal, oil and nuclear industries, simultaneously and globally!