New Ways to Store Solar Energy for Nighttime and Cloudy Days

Solar power, the holy grail of renewable energy, has always faced the problem of how to store the energy captured from the sun’s rays so that demand for electricity can be met at night or whenever the sun is not shining.
The difficulty is that electricity is hard to store. Batteries are not up to efficiently storing energy on a large scale. A different approach being tried by the solar power industry could eliminate the problem.
The idea is to capture the sun’s heat. Heat, unlike electric current, is something that industry knows how to store cost-effectively. For example, a coffee thermos and a laptop computer’s battery store about the same amount of energy, said John S. O’Donnell, executive vice president of a company in the solar thermal business, Ausra. The thermos costs about $5 and the laptop battery $150, he said, and “that’s why solar thermal is going to be the dominant form.”

Solar thermal systems are built to gather heat from the sun, boil water into steam, spin a turbine and make power, as existing solar thermal power plants do — but not immediately. The heat would be stored for hours or even days, like water behind a dam.

A plant that could store its output could pick the time to sell the production based on expected price, as wheat farmers and cattle ranchers do. Ausra, of Palo Alto, Calif., is making components for plants to which thermal storage could be added, if the cost were justified by higher prices after sunset or for production that could be realistically promised even if the weather forecast was iffy. Ausra uses Fresnel lenses, which have a short focal length but focus light intensely, to heat miles of black-painted pipe with a fluid inside.

A competitor a step behind in signing contracts, but with major corporate backing, plans a slightly different technique in which adding storage seems almost trivial. It is a “power tower,” a little bit like a water tank on stilts surrounded by hundreds of mirrors that tilt on two axes, one to follow the sun across the sky in the course of the day and the other in the course of the year. In the tower and in a tank below are tens of thousands of gallons of molten salt that can be heated to very high temperatures and not reach high pressure.

“You take the energy the sun is putting into the earth that day, store it and capture it, put it into the reservoir, and use it on demand,” said Terry Murphy, president and chief executive of SolarReserve, a company backed in part by United Technologies, the Hartford conglomerate.

Power plants are typically designed with a heat production system matched to their electric generators. Mr. Murphy sees no reason why his should. His design is for a power tower that can supply 540 megawatts of heat. At the high temperatures it could achieve, that would produce 250 megawatts of electricity, enough to run a fair-size city.

It might make more sense to produce a smaller quantity and run well into the evening or around the clock or for several days when it is cloudy, he said.

At Black & Veatch, a builder of power plants, Larry Stoddard, the manager of renewable energy consulting, said that with a molten salt design, “your turbine is totally buffered from the vagaries of the sun.” By contrast, “if I’ve got a 50 megawatt photovoltaic plant, covering 300 acres or so, and a large cloud comes over, I lose 50 megawatts in something like 100 to 120 seconds,” he said, adding, “That strikes fear into the hearts of utility dispatchers.”

Thermal storage using molten salt can work in a system like Ausra’s, with miles of piping, but if the salt is spread out through a serpentine pipe, rather than held in a heavily insulated tank, it has to be kept warm at night so it does not solidify, among other complications.

A tower design could also allow for operation at higher latitudes or places with less sun. Designers could simply put in bigger fields of mirrors, proponents say. A small start-up, eSolar, is pursuing that design, backed by Google, which has announced a program to try to make renewable electricity for less than the price of coal-fired power.

Mr. Murphy helped build a power tower at a plant in Barstow, Calif., sponsored by the Energy Department in the late ’90s. It ran well, he said, but natural gas, a competing fuel, collapsed in price, and the state had few requirements for renewable power.

“There were not renewable portfolio standards,” Mr. Murphy said. “Nobody cared about global warming, and we weren’t killing people in Iraq.”

How to Store Solar Energy

If you’ve ever wondered how to store solar energy here are the basics. Solar energy is energy from the sun which is collected here on earth for heating, lighting and other human needs. Many of our basic energy needs can be addressed by using solar power. This can be done directly or indirectly but is not easy to do on a large scale. To store solar energy two components are required.

A means of collecting the solar energy and a way to generate it are needed to make sure we can access the sun’s energy. The collector collects the sun’s radiation and converts some of it to another form of energy such as electricity and heat. It is critical to find a way to store solar energy. This is because the sun does not shine for 24 hours a day and on overcast days the energy is inhibited.

The storage equipment is a way to accumulate excess energy when the sun’s rays are at maximum strength. When the sun is not shining or obscured this stored energy can be used. A backup supply also forms part of this system for times when the stored energy is insufficient. There are many ways to store solar energy. Three types of collectors are used to collect the sun’s radiation: 1) flat-plate collectors, 2) focusing collectors and 3) passive collectors.

Solar energy is very well suited for heating purposes. This heat energy can be stored in a liquid like water or a packed bed. A packed bed is a container in which small objects like stones can be placed. The stones are able to store solar energy. Heat energy can also be stored in phase-changer or heat-of-fusion units which use chemicals to alter solid to liquid at certain temperatures. Later the liquid can return to its solid form and the energy can be used.

This process is often used to store solar energy in homes to heat water. The water itself acts as the means to store solar energy. A tank is filled with hot water during the day and used when it’s required. Swimming pools can also be heated using solar energy. The water in the pool may act as a storage medium or a packed bed may be used instead. Solar energy can be used to heat homes. In this case a lot more energy is needed.

This means that larger solar panels need to be used to store solar energy. Heat-of-fusion storage units are usually used for this purpose but packed bed or hot water tanks are also sometimes used. It can be quite expensive to purchase large panels and a storage system to heat a large building. If a building is heated by solar power passive collectors are used with other storage systems.

One type of passive energy collector is the incidental heat trap. In this system heat enters through a window and falls on a stone floor. During the day the floor absorbs the heat and stays cool. At night the heat is released and heating is achieved. Another way to store solar energy is thermo-siphoning walls or roofs. In this system the heat that is absorbed and wasted in the walls and roof can be channeled for heating the home.