The Solar Age – 100years old

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)
SEGS Kramer Junction see
For photos of solar towers, parabolic troughs, Fresnel lenses and dishes see