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How does a solar power plant work?

Solar power plants use the sun's rays to produce electricity. Photovoltaic plants and solar
thermal systems are the most commonly used solar technologies today.

Solar cells such as these are used in photovoltaic solar technology

There are two types of solar power plants. They are differentiated depending on how the
energy from the sun is converted into electricity - either via photovoltaic or "solar cells,"
or via solar thermal power plants.

Photovoltaic plants

A photovoltaic cell, commonly called a solar cell or PV, is a technology used to convert
solar energy directly into electricity. A photovoltaic cell is usually made from silicon

Particles of solar energy, known as photons, strike the surface of a photovoltaic cell
between two semiconductors.

These semiconductors exhibit a property known as the photoelectric effect,

which causes them to absorb the photons and release electrons. The electrons are
captured in the form of an electric current - in other words, electricity.

Solar thermal power plants

A solar thermal plant generates heat and electricity by concentrating the sun's energy.
That in turn builds steam that helps to feed a turbine and generator to produce

There are three types of solar thermal power plants:

1) Parabolic troughs
This is the most common type of solar thermal plant. A "solar field" usually contains
many parallel rows of solar parabolic trough collectors. They use parabola-shaped
reflectors to focus the sun at 30 to 100 times its normal intensity.

The method is used to heat a special type of fluid, which is then collected at a central
location to generate high-pressure, superheated steam.

2) Solar power tower

This system uses hundreds to thousands of flat sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats to
reflect and concentrate the sun's energy onto a central receiver tower. The energy can
be concentrated as much as 1,500 times that of the energy coming in from the sun.

A test solar power tower exists in Juelich in the western German state of North-Rhine
Westphalia. It is spread over 18,000 square meters (194,000 square feet) and uses more
than 2,000 sun-tracking mirrors to reflect and concentrate the sun's energy onto a 60-
meter-high (200 foot high) central receiver tower.

The concentrated solar energy is used to heat the air in the tower to up to 700 degrees
Celsius (1,300 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat is captured in a boiler and is used to
produce electricity with the help of a steam turbine.

Solar thermal energy collectors work well even in adverse weather conditions. They're
used in the Mojave Desert in California and have withstood hailstorms and sandstorms.

3) Solar pond

This is a pool of saltwater which collects and stores solar thermal energy. It uses so-
called salinity-gradient technology.

Basically, the bottom layer of the pond is extremely hot - up to 85 degrees Celsius - and
acts as a transparent insulator, permitting sunlight to be trapped from which heat may
be withdrawn or stored for later use.

This technology has been used in Israel since 1984 to produce electricity.
What is a Solar Power Tower and How Do
They Work?
Download PDF Copy

Written by AZoCleantechJan 7 2008

Solar One - The First Generation of Power Tower Plant
Solar Two - The Next Generation Solar Power Tower
Advantages of Using Molten Salt
Design and Construction of the Solar Two Power Tower
The Salt Mixture
Metal Corrosion in the Molten-Salt Environment
What are the Benefits of Solar Power Towers?
Environmental Impact of Solar Power Towers

Solar power tower convert sunshine into clean electricity. The technology uses many large,
sun-tracking mirrors commonly referred to as heliostats to focus sunlight on 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. Early power towers such as the Solar
One plant uses steam as the heat transfer fluid. Current power towers such as Solar Two use
molten nitrate salt. Nitrate salt is used because of its superior heat transfer and energy storage

Solar One - The First Generation of Power Tower Plant

Solar One was the worlds largest power tower plant, which operated from 1982 to 1988. The
Solar One thermal storage system works by storing heat in the form of steam generated using
solar energy in a tank which is filled with rocks and sand and using oil as the heat-transfer

The Solar One thermal storage system extended the power generation capability of the plant
into the night and provided heat for generating low-grade steam for keeping parts of the plant
warm during off-hours and for morning startup.

Unfortunately, the Solar One thermal storage system was complex and thermodynamically
inefficient. Solar One also showed the disadvantages of a water/steam system, such as the
intermittent operation of the turbine due to cloud transcience and lack of effective thermal

Solar Two - The Next Generation Solar Power Tower

The conversion of Solar One to Solar Two required a new molten-salt heat transfer system
and a new control system. This includes the receiver, thermal storage, piping, and a steam
generator. The Solar One heliostat field, the tower, and the turbine or generator required only
minimal modifications.

Advantages of Using Molten Salt

A variety of fluids were tested to transport the sun's heat, including water, air, oil, and
sodium, before molten salt was selected as best. Molten salt is used in solar power tower
systems because it is liquid at atmosphere pressure, it provides an efficient, low-cost medium
in which to store thermal energy, its operating temperatures are compatible with todays high-
pressure and high-temperature steam turbines, and it is non-flammable and nontoxic. In
addition, molten salt is used in the chemical and metals industries as a heat-transport fluid, so
experience with molten-salt systems exists for non-solar applications.

Design and Construction of the Solar Two Power Tower

The Solar Two power tower is composed of a series of panels, each made of 32 thin-walled,
stainless steel tubes, through which the molten salt flows in a serpentine path. The panels
form a cylindrical shell surrounding piping, structural supports, and control equipment.

A black Pyromark paint which is robust, resistant to high temperatures and thermal cycling
and absorbs 95% of the incident sunlight is used to coat the external surfaces of the tubes.
The receiver design has been optimized to absorb a maximum amount of solar energy while
reducing the heat losses due to convection and radiation.
The design including laser-welding, sophisticated tube-nozzle-header connections, a tube clip
design that facilitates tube expansion and contraction, and non-contact flux measurement
devices, allows the receiver to rapidly change temperature without being damaged.

The Salt Mixture

A mixture of 60 percent sodium nitrate and 40 percent potassium nitrate is employed as the
salt storage medium. This salt melts at 220C and is maintained in a molten state of 290C in
the cold storage tank. It is then traveled through the receiver where it is heated to 565C and
then on to a hot tank for storage.

Hot salt is pumped to a steam generating system when power is needed from the plant. These
hot salts produce superheated steam for a conventional Rankine-cycle turbine generator
system. From the steam generator, the salt is returned to the cold tank where it is stored and
eventually reheated in the receiver.

Metal Corrosion in the Molten-Salt Environment

All pipes, valves, and vessels for hot salt were constructed from stainless steel because of its
corrosion resistance in the molten-salt environment, while the cold-salt system is made from
mild carbon steel.

What are the Benefits of Solar Power Towers?

Like all solar technologies, solar power towers are fueled by sunshine and do not release
greenhouse gases. Solar power towers are unique among solar electric technologies in their
ability to efficiently store solar energy and dispatch electricity to the grid when needed, even
at night or during cloudy weather.

Environmental Impact of Solar Power Towers

No hazardous gaseous or liquid emissions are released during operation of the solar power
tower plant. If a salt spill occurs, the salt will freeze before significant contamination of the
soil occurs. Salt is picked up with a shovel and can be recycled if necessary. If the power
tower is hybridized with a conventional fossil plant, emissions will be released from the non-
solar portion of the plant.