March 11, 2008 A new study published by utility-scale solar developer Ausra argues that over 90 percent of the electric grid and car fleet in the US could be powered by solar thermal power, reducing overall US global warming pollution by 40 percent in the process.
Ausra is the company responsible for the first US manufacturing plant for thermal solar systems. While noting that the company has a financial stake in the future of solar thermal power, the broader implications of the peer reviewed study (ie. that solar power CAN provide a viable large-scale alternative to fossil fuel sources) provides a positive outlook for meeting the needs of energy hungry US consumers and industry with renewable technologies.
Solar thermal technology uses fields of mirrors to capture the sun’s energy as heat to boil water and drive steam turbines. Its low-cost, efficient heat storage makes solar thermal power uniquely able to provide a reliable energy supply from ever-varying sunshine.
The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration projects over 70 percent total growth in the nation’s electricity demands by 2025, and analysts predict a further increase in electricity needs as plug-in electric hybrid vehicles come to the market. Through a combination of plug-in hybrids and solar thermal power, Ausra suggest the US could eliminate the importation of 13 million barrels of fuel per day. The study found that because the seasonal and daily patterns of solar radiation already correlate strongly with electricity use, just 16 hours of thermal storage can provide reliable, load-following electric power.
According to David Mills, chief scientific officer and founder at Ausra and co-author of the new study, the U.S. could nearly eliminate its dependence on coal, oil and gas for electricity and transportation. “This new study shows that our daily and annual energy needs closely match the energy production potential from solar thermal power plants with heat energy storage, and our models show solar thermal power will cost less than continuing to import oil,” said Mills.
And the need to make the switch to is an urgent one. “Near-zero pollution technology has to replace most of our current electricity generation by mid-century to prevent the worst global warming outcomes,” said Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who was a principal author of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report. “We’ve got to cut pollution 80 percent by mid-century, and that means transforming both our electric power and transportation sectors.”
Mills, the inventor of the absorber surfaces used in the majority of the world’s solar hot water heaters and the pioneer of Ausra’s compact linear Fresnel (CLFR) technology, recently presented his findings at the IEA SolarPACES solar research conference in Las Vegas.