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Solar Thermal Plants

A one-kilometre square field of solar thermal parabolic troughs could generate an incredible 120 million kWh of energy.1 That’s enough to power some 6,400 homes.2 The question is, can solar thermal plants generate enough energy to meet our future demand?

What Are Solar Thermal Plants?

Solar thermal plants are large energy farms that use sunlight to heat a fluid held within a network of pipes to temperatures of some 400°C.3 About two thirds of the heat from the fluid is used to produce steam, and in turn electricity, while the remaining third is stowed away to generate electricity when the sun goes down.4 To make sure that a consistent level of energy is produced, a backup natural gas boiler is often integrated into the system.5 There are several varieties of solar thermal systems available, however, the most widely used is the solar parabolic trough.6 Currently, solar thermal plants produce just 5 TWh of energy per year – that’s just a tiny fraction of the world’s current energy demand.7 Despite this, solar thermal plants offer a huge amount of potential. In fact, studies estimate that they could meet the world’s energy demand more than two times over.8 When this is coupled with solar thermal plants’ ability to store heat, plus the option of a boiler backup, many would argue solar thermal plants provide a more complete solution than any other renewable technology available.

What’s Good About Them?

  • They have huge global potential.
  • The energy can be stored to meet demand.9
  • They can generate energy on land that offers little value.
  • Their visual impact is minimal.
  • There are few moving parts making the system very quiet.

What’s Bad About Them?

  • They have limited potential in colder climates.10
  • They are more expensive than other solar technologies.
  • They need flat land to be commercially viable.
  • Significant amounts of water are generally required for the system to generate energy.11

How Much Area Do We Need?

Let’s assume that the United States was one giant desert. If this were the case, less than 2% of the country’s land would have to be covered with solar thermal plants to meet the entire country’s energy demand.12 Furthermore, assuming that the United Kingdom was also a desert, less than 5% of the landmass would have to be covered with solar thermal plants to meet the entire country’s energy demand.13

Map showing the land area of the United States of America that would have to be covered with solar thermal plants in order to meet the country's energy demand.

What Impact Do They Have on the Landscape?

Solar thermal plants have the potential to cover several hundred kilometres of land. Yet, as solar thermal panels are only ever a few metres tall, even arrays of this magnitude would have minimal visual impact at eye level. What’s more, planting can be used along the boundaries to completely screen the arrays. Having said that, some solar thermal systems concentrate the sun’s energy onto a prominent central tower that is used to generate the steam required for the electricity. These towers can be in excess of 250-metres tall and subsequently have a significant impact on the surrounding landscape.14 However, through careful design, nothing is stopping these towers from being elegant landmarks that integrate sympathetically into the surrounding context.

From the air, solar thermal plants will be clearly visible. However, from the ground, they will be hardly noticeable.

Where Are Solar Thermal Plants Best Located?

Solar thermal plants need large areas of flat land and an abundance of light to be effective. This makes them ideal for arid desert regions such as northern Africa, the Middle East, some of the United States and much of Australia. It also means that it will be difficult to generate meaningful amounts of energy using solar thermal plants through-out the majority of South America, Asia and Europe.

How Do They Perform?

Energy PriceLife SpanEnergy per KM²
¢12/KWH1540 YRS16130 GWH/YR17

Economic OffsetEnergy OffsetWorld Potential
25 YRS182 YRS19275 PWH20

How Do They Rate?

Value for Money|★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Reliability|★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Eco-friendliness|★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Global Potential|★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Overall|★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Solar Thermal Plants in a Nutshell

To summarise, solar thermal plants have the potential to supply all of the world’s current energy demand. Furthermore, solar thermal plants don’t make any noise and have minimal visual impact. What’s more, they can be used on land that offers little other value. However, solar thermal plants are more expensive than photovoltaic arrays and require more land. Nevertheless, because the energy can be stored, solar thermal plants may offer an excellent way to balance the sporadic supply produced by cheaper renewable devices such as onshore turbines and photovoltaics. When it comes to generating energy, there are more sources available to us than just the sun and the wind though. Why not find out what water has to offer by taking a look at hydroelectric dams? Alternatively, find out other ways we can stop climate change by returning to the main menu.

Image Credit

Title image taken by Andrew Orlemann and reproduced under license from Adobe Stock.

United States map created by SUPER RADICAL.

Image of solar thermal plant taken by tangencial and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

World map based on data sourced from Trieb et al. – ‘Global Potential of Concentrating Solar Power’ – Figure 3. World map created by SUPER RADICAL.

General Notes

All figures presented in this section are estimates based on best available data, assume optimum locations, and, wherever possible, are based on comparable studies. That said, many of the studies assume different economic conditions, climatic conditions, time frames and locations. Furthermore, the technologies discussed in this section are in a constant state of development. As a result, the figures presented within this section provide a rough guide only and should not be viewed as a definitive performance level.

For the total world energy demand, a figure of 104.4 million GWh has been used. The figure is based on 2012 data and sourced from International Energy Agency – 'World Balances for 2012' – www.iea.org.

All UK to USA currency conversions have been set at $1.656 USD for each £1 GBP. The figure is based on the conversion rate as of the 1st January 2014 and sourced from XE – 'XECurrency Table: USD - U.S. Dollar' – www.xe.com.

Article Endnotes

  1. Based on parabolic troughs generating 15 watts of energy per square metre. Sourced from MacKay, David J.C. – ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ – Page 178. Figure includes losses of 2% due to power conditioning and 6.5% due to transmission and distribution. Power conditioning losses based on data sourced from Fuji Electric – ‘Large-scale Photovoltaic Power Generation Systems’ – Page 7. Transmission and distribution losses based on 2007 data for the United States and sourced from United States Department of Energy – ‘Frequently Asked Questions – Electricity’ – tonto.eia.doe.gov.
  2. Based on a UK home using an average 18,738 kWh of energy in 2014. Sourced from UK Department of Energy and Climate Change – ‘Energy Consumption in the UK’ – Page 7.
  3. Solar Millennium – ‘The parabolic trough power plants Andasol 1 to 3’ – Page 6.
  4. International Energy Agency – ‘Technology Roadmap: Solar Thermal Energy’ – Page 13.
  5. International Energy Agency – ‘Technology Roadmap: Solar Thermal Energy’ – Pages 14 to 15.
  6. SolarServer – ‘Concentrated Solar Power: Versatile Technology with Huge Potential for Clean and Affordable Energy’ – www.solarserver.com.
  7. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Renewables and Waste for 2012’ – www.iea.org.
  8. Based on solar thermal plants being able to produce 275 million GWh of energy per year. Sourced from Hoogwijk, Monique and Graus, Wina – ‘Global Potential of Renewable Energy Sources: A Literature Assessment’ – Page 39. Please note, figure does not include power conditioning, distribution and transmission losses.
  9. International Energy Agency – ‘Technology Roadmap: Solar Thermal Energy’ – Page 13.
  10. 95
  11. 96
  12. Based on the United States of America having a total land area of 9,147,420 square kilometres, the United States of America demanding 16.8 million GWh of energy per year, solar thermal plants generating 130 GWh per hectare, a 2% loss due to power conditioning and 6.5% loss due to transmission and distribution. Land area sourced from The World Bank – ‘Land Area (SQ. KM)’ – data.worldbank.org. Energy demand based on 2012 data and sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘United States: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org. Energy generated by solar thermal plants based on 15 Watts of energy being generated per square metre. Data sourced from MacKay, David J.C. – ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ – Page 178. Power conditioning losses based on data sourced from Fuji Electric – ‘Large-scale Photovoltaic Power Generation Systems’ – Page 7. Transmission and distribution losses based on 2007 data for the United States and sourced from U.S. Department of Energy – ‘Frequently Asked Questions – Electricity’ – tonto.eia.doe.gov.
  13. Based on the United Kingdom having a total land area of 248,532 square kilometres, the United Kingdom demanding 1.48 million GWh of energy per year, solar thermal plants generating 130 GWh per hectare, a 2% loss due to power conditioning and 6.5% loss due to transmission and distribution. Land area sourced from The World Bank – ‘Land Area (SQ. KM)’ – data.worldbank.org. Energy demand based on 2012 data and sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘United Kingdom: Balances for 2012’ – www.iea.org. Energy generated by solar thermal plants based on 15 Watts of energy being generated per square metre. Data sourced from MacKay, David J.C. – ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ – Page 178. Power conditioning losses based on data sourced from Fuji Electric – ‘Large-scale Photovoltaic Power Generation Systems’ – Page 7. Transmission and distribution losses based on 2007 data for the United States and sourced from U.S. Department of Energy – ‘Frequently Asked Questions – Electricity’ – tonto.eia.doe.gov.
  14. Based on the phase four solar tower at the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. Sourced from Barnes, John – ‘World’s Tallest Concentrated Solar Power Tower Install’ – constructionreviewonline.com.
  15. Lazard – ‘Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 8.0’ – Page 16.
  16. Kubic – ‘Concentrated Solar Power, A Large-Scale Technology’ – www.kubicglobal.com.
  17. Data based on 15 Watts of energy being generated per square metre. Data sourced from MacKay, David J.C. – ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ – Page 178.
  18. Calculation undertaken within the ‘Renewable Solution’ section of the ‘ZERO-FIFTY World Energy Database’ and based on a lifespan of 40 years. Lifespan sourced from Lazard – ‘Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 8.0’ – Page 16.
  19. No carbon offset data available so substituted with energy offset period. Sourced from Diesendorf, Mark – ‘Dispelling Myth of Energy Payback of Renewable Energy Systems’ – reneweconomy.com.au.
  20. Hoogwijk, Monique and Graus, Wina – ‘Global Potential of Renewable Energy Sources: A Literature Assessment’ – Page 39. Please note, power conditioning, distribution and transmission losses have not been considered.

For further information about any of the above sources, please visit the ZERO EMISSION WORLD Works Cited page.

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