Australian Solar Plant Creates Supercritical Steam

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An Australian solar power plant has broken a world record, but funding cuts may not allow the technology to reach the public.

In recent years, solar thermal plants have seen major growth, even though the cost per megawatt hour is higher than photovoltaic or wind power. While photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly into electricity, solar thermal plants track and reflect sunlight onto massive boilers. The resulting steam then drives a series of turbines which generate electricity.

solar thermal 600x421 Australian Solar Plant Creates Supercritical Steam

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CSIRO, an Australian scientific research institute, believe they have solution to drive prices down though, as they have managed to generate supercritical steam. “It’s like breaking the sound barrier; this step change proves solar has the potential to compete with the peak performance capabilities of fossil fuel sources,” said Dr. Alex Wonhas, CSIRO’s Energy Director.

By creating a control system, they managed to calculate the exact amount of heat generated by each reflecting mirror, which then allows CSIRO to optimize the energy transfer without damaging the receivers. The more steam that is generated, the more power which can be produced. This drives the cost per megawatt power down to a price comparable to fossil fuels, which would be a major advantage for solar power technology. However, the Australian government has just announced they are shutting down the Renewable Energy Agency. This means that projects such as CSIRO’s would not get the funding they need going forward. To top that, CSIRO’s direct funding has been reduced by $103 million USD over the next four years, and they are being forced to pay for specific programs which will lead to deeper cuts elsewhere.

If they don’t receive their funding, and do eventually shut down, it will be a major blow to the Australian clean energy industry. Hopefully though, CSIRO will publish their work and agencies in other countries will be able to build upon this research in an effort to further the technology. The sooner we get energy that is both cheap and clean, the better.


Images: CSIRO

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