July 9, 2009 By Blake Harris
Solar energy might soon be ready for prime time in the U.S., poised to plug into a Smart Grid and begin to contribute significantly to the country's energy needs, thanks to a new innovative, high-efficiency solar system.
Stirling Energy Systems (SES) and Tessera Solar recently unveiled four newly designed solar power collection dishes at Sandia National Laboratories' National Solar Thermal Test Facility (NSTTF). Called SunCatchers, the new dishes have a refined design that will be used in commercial-scale deployments of the units beginning in 2010.
"The four new dishes are the next-generation model of the original SunCatcher system. Six first-generation SunCatchers built over the past several years at the NSTTF have been producing up to 150KW [kilowatts] of grid-ready electrical power during the day," said Chuck Andraka, the lead Sandia project engineer, in a Sandia National Laboratories news release issued today. "Every part of the new system has been upgraded to allow for a high rate of production and cost reduction."
Sandia's concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) team has been working closely with SES over the past five years to improve the system design and operation.
The modular CSP SunCatcher uses precision mirrors attached to a parabolic dish to focus the sun's rays onto a receiver, which transmits the heat to a Stirling engine. The engine is a sealed system filled with hydrogen. As the gas heats and cools, its pressure rises and falls. The change in pressure drives the piston inside the engine, producing mechanical power, which in turn drives a generator and makes electricity.
The new SunCatcher is about 5,000 pounds lighter than the original, is round instead of rectangular to allow for more efficient use of steel, has improved optics, and consists of 60 percent fewer engine parts. The revised design also has fewer mirrors - 40 instead of 80. The reflective mirrors are formed into a parabolic shape using stamped sheet metal similar to the hood of a car. The mirrors are made by using automobile manufacturing techniques. The improvements will result in high-volume production, cost reductions, and easier maintenance.
Among Sandia's contributions to the new design was development of a tool to determine how well the mirrors work in less than 10 seconds, something that took the earlier design one hour.
"The new design of the SunCatcher represents more than a decade of innovative engineering and validation testing, making it ready for commercialization," says Steve Cowman, Stirling Energy Systems CEO. "By utilizing the automotive supply chain to manufacture the SunCatcher, we're leveraging the talents of an industry that has refined high-volume production through an assembly line process. More than 90 percent of the SunCatcher components will be manufactured in North America."
In addition to improved manufacturability and easy maintenance, the new SunCatcher minimizes both cost and land use and has numerous environmental advantages, Andraka says.
"They have the lowest water use of any thermal electric generating technology, require minimal grading and trenching, require no excavation for foundations, and will not produce greenhouse gas emissions while converting sunlight into electricity," he says.
Tessera Solar, the developer and operator of large-scale solar projects using the SunCatcher technology and sister company of SES, is building a 60-unit plant generating 1.5 MW (megawatts) by the end of the year either in Arizona or California. One megawatt powers about 800 homes. The proprietary solar dish technology will then be deployed to develop two of the world's largest solar generating plants in Southern California with San Diego Gas & Electric in the Imperial Valley and Southern California Edison in the Mojave Desert, in addition to the recently announced project with CPS Energy in West Texas. The projects are expected to produce 1,000 MW by the end of 2012.
Last year one of the original SunCatchers set a new solar-to-grid system conversion efficiency record by achieving a 31.25 percent net efficiency rate, toppling the old 1984 record of 29.4.