No-one can question that solar PV has become the face of the solar industry worldwide. The advantage of solar PV is the same as the advantage of the electricity it generates – it’s flexible. You can stick a handful of solar panels on virtually any roof anywhere, and the system will start ticking away, quietly offsetting the bills you pay for taking power from the grid. If you need more power, just add more panels to your roof – simple. Solar PV power plants take this arrangement to the next level, grouping hundreds of panels together in order to maximise energy production. By comparison, Solar thermal energy has been seen as the baby brother of solar PV, the alternative to an alternative source of energy. These assumption have always been wide of the mark, perhaps even driven by competitiveness within the solar industry. Now though, solar thermal power is fully emerging from the shadow of solar PV (pun intended). Solar thermal is going from solar PV’s little brother to a renewable source of power that has the potential to dominate the renewable energy industry for years to come.
Solar Thermal Energy Excels At Home And Beyond
The recent emergence of solar thermal energy is, like the emergence of the clean tech industry as a whole, largely tied to technological developments and innovations. Of course, the ‘classic’ use for solar thermal energy has been to generate heat. On the small scale (for homes and businesses who want to use clean energy), this has meant installing solar thermal heating systems. Traditional fossil fuel boilers and furnaces aren’t just bad for the environment, they’re quite expensive when compared to clean, free renewable energy. The last barrier impeding solar thermal heating at home was the question of how to heat a home 24 hours a day using only solar power. At SunPump, we’re very proud to have overcome this obstacle; the SunPump solar thermal heating system provides 24 hour on-demand heat, without the need of another heat source or source of energy. This doesn’t just allow solar thermal power to compete with fossil fuel for home heating – it blows traditional boilers and furnaces out of the water with fantastic savings on heating bills and use of clean, carbon-free solar energy.
On the other end of the scale, solar thermal power plants have been gaining steadily in popularity, and may now be positioned to leapfrog solar PV as a means of generating electricity en mass. As you can imagine, solar thermal power plants (also known as concentrated solar power or CSP plants) work quite differently than solar PV plants, as well as the kinds of solar thermal systems you find in homes.
“CSP is basically a complete coal-fired power replacement. We can act as base-load [power], we can run 24/7 if that is what is needed and we have all the benefits that a coal plant offers to the grid.” – James Fisher, CTO of Australian solar energy company Vast Solar
CSP works by using mirrors to focus huge amounts of solar energy on one spot. This generates lots of heat, which is used to boil water and create steam. The steam is then in turn used to spin turbines and generate electricity. Much like solar thermal in homes, CSP is now advanced to the point where it can compete with (and beat) coal and other fossil fuel plants for cost and capacity, offering 24 enough hour energy to meet the needs of a large area and population.
So the next time you hear that solar PV is the only kind of solar power worth knowing about, you can say that you know better. Solar thermal energy is quickly becoming the most practical and cost effective way of generating energy both at home and on a larger scale. In fact, for home heating, it’s already there. For homeowners, SunPump (and other solar thermal heaters) can dramatically cut carbon emissions and heating bills without sacrificing comfort or convenience, while CSP power plants have become an exciting and convincing way to generate electricity on a large scale. As the world continues its transition towards clean, renewable energy, it’s looking more and more like solar thermal power could be leading the way.