Is molten salt the “secret sauce” for solar?

A couple of companies in California, SolarReserve and Rocketdyne,  are gearing up to use molten salt as the key ingredient in a new solar plant that’s expected to power 100,000 homes. While it sounds like a weird idea, the concept has actually been proven before, in a shuttered concentrated solar power (CSP) pilot plant near Barstow, California.   That pilot plant, called Solar Two, consisted of more than 1,800 mirrors that focused sunlight on a solar collector in a tower.   The sunlight was used to heat up salt to more than 1,000 degrees, which was then used to create steam in a heat exchanger.  The steam was then used to drive the turbines to create electricity.   The salt, once its used to create the steam, was then pumped back into the tower to begin the cycle again.    One benefit of this approach is that the molten salt can be stored for days and used to generate electricity at any time, not just when the sun is shining.     According to SolarReserve President Terry Murphy, “Molten salt is the secret sauce….You can put that into a storage tank that would look much like a tank at an oil refinery.  We can store that energy almost indefinitely.”

The new plant is being designed by Santa Monica based energy company SolarReserve , who have licensed the solar collector technology from aerospace firm Rocketdyne.    SolarReserve is hoping to have the new plant operational by 2013, on private land in the Southwest US.   They expect to come out with several announcements in the next couple of months with more details.

Closed SolarTwo project near Barstow, CA

Update: 12/18/2009 – For awhile it looked like this project was not going to happen – the Air Force had concerns due to the proximity of the plant to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.  The Air Force thought the the concentrated solar power plant would interfere with training and radar from the base.    However, just this week, the Air Force dropped its objections to the project, after SolarReserve agreed to move the proposed plant about a mile and a half from its original location.


2 thoughts on “Is molten salt the “secret sauce” for solar?

  1. This is a very interesting article. As far as I’m aware there is a very similar plant in Spain that also uses circum-arrangement of mirrors facing a large absorption tower- it may even be sponsored by the same conglomerate. One aspect within solar technology that I am both fascinated by – and occupationally bound to as Assistant CIO at Dong Energy – is solar cogeneration. Scandinavia has a long tradition of Combined Heat and Power (CHP/Cogeneration) as an energy source attained from steam and power plants, but this new technology seems to be paving the way for a new adaptation of cogeneration principles. I am currently interested in what the industry’s online community have to say about solar cogeneration, so I would like to point out a discussion thread at where I would encourage all interested to contribute to the discussion, as proliferating information on cogeneration could lead to the uptake of this efficient power generation source across Europe.

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