Concentrating Solar Power – Using the sun’s heat to produce electricity

CSP systems collect and concentrate (focus) the solar energy in sunlight to generate electricity.

CSP plants generate electric power by using mirrors to concentrate (focus) the sun’s energy and convert it into high-temperature heat. That heat is then channeled through a conventional generator. The plants consist of two parts: one that collects solar energy and converts it to heat, and another that converts the heat energy to electricity. Within the United States, over 350MW of CSP capacity exists and these plants have been operating reliably for more than 15 years.

The three main types of concentrating solar power systems are: linear concentrator, dish/engine, and power tower systems.

Linear Concentrator

Linear concentrator systems collect the sun’s energy using long rectangular, curved (U-shaped) mirrors. The mirrors are tilted toward the sun, focusing sunlight on tubes (or receivers) that run the length of the mirrors. Concentrated Solar Power Concept

The reflected sunlight heats a fluid flowing through the tubes. The hot fluid then is used to boil water in a conventional steam-turbine generator to produce electricity.

Concentrated solar power plant using parabolic trough design

Concentrated solar power plant using parabolic trough design

Dish/ Engine

Solar Concentrator- The solar concentrator, or dish, gathers the solar energy coming directly from the sun. The resulting beam of concentrated sunlight is reflected onto a thermal receiver that collects the solar heat.
Solar Power Dish Engine

Power Conversion Unit

The power conversion unit includes the thermal receiver and the engine/generator. The thermal receiver is the interface between the dish and the engine/generator. It absorbs the concentrated beams of solar energy, converts them to heat, and transfers the heat to the engine/generator.

The engine/generator system is the subsystem that takes the heat from the thermal receiver and uses it to produce electricity. Currently, the most common type of heat engine used in dish/engine systems is the Stirling engine. A Stirling engine uses the heated fluid to move pistons and create mechanical power. The mechanical work, in the form of the rotation of the engine’s crankshaft, drives a generator and produces electrical power.

A parabolic solar dish concentrating the sun's rays on the heating element of a Stirling engine. The entire unit acts as a solar tracker.

A parabolic solar dish concentrating the sun's rays on the heating element of a Stirling engine. The entire unit acts as a solar tracker.

Power Tower

In this CSP technology, numerous large, flat, sun-tracking mirrors, known as heliostats, focus sunlight onto a receiver at the top of a tower. A heat-transfer fluid heated in the receiver is used to generate steam, which, in turn, is used in a conventional turbine generator to produce electricity.

CSP 6

Some power towers use water/steam as the heat-transfer fluid. Other advanced designs are experimenting with molten nitrate salt because of its superior heat-transfer and energy-storage capabilities. Individual commercial plants can be sized to produce up to 200 megawatts of electricity.

Solar Two. Flat mirrors focus the light on the top of the tower. The white surfaces below the receiver are used for calibrating the mirror positions.

Solar Two. Flat mirrors focus the light on the top of the tower. The white surfaces below the receiver are used for calibrating the mirror positions.

Solar Concentrator- The solar concentrator, or dish, gathers the solar energy coming directly from the sun. The resulting beam of concentrated sunlight is reflected onto a thermal receiver that collects the solar heat.

Power Conversion Unit -The power conversion unit includes the thermal receiver and the engine/generator. The thermal receiver is the interface between the dish and the engine/generator. It absorbs the concentrated beams of solar energy, converts them to heat, and transfers the heat to the engine/generator.
The engine/generator system is the subsystem that takes the heat from the thermal receiver and uses it to produce electricity. Currently, the most common type of heat engine used in dish/engine systems is the Stirling engine. A Stirling engine uses the heated fluid to move pistons and create mechanical power. The mechanical work, in the form of the rotation of the engine’s crankshaft, drives a generator and produces electrical power.