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Earth Power Science Technology

Ariz. Team Seeks Fossil-Fuel Cost Parity, Using Solar Energy Concentrators 245

Posted by timothy
from the all-I-want-is-a-big-solar-oven dept.
autospa writes "A University of Arizona engineering team led by Roger Angel has designed a new type of solar concentrator that uses half the area of solar (PV) cells used by other optical devices and delivers a light output/concentration that is over 1000 times more concentrated before it even hits the cells. This comes as a result of a broader goal to make solar energy cost competitive with fossil fuels (target = 1$/W) without the 'need for government subsidization.'"
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Ariz. Team Seeks Fossil-Fuel Cost Parity, Using Solar Energy Concentrators

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  • by timeOday (582209) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:03PM (#35398982)
    It's hard to count all the ways our oil economy is supported and subsidized by the government. And we haven't even started cleaning up the mess yet.
    • by khallow (566160)
      As a fraction of revenue, these new renewable resources are subsidized far more than coal and oil (coal being the subsidized material you should consider). It is refreshing to see these renewable power sources nearing an unsubsidized parity with coal. That's far more important than complaining about which one is subsidized more.
  • subsidization? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by polar red (215081) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:05PM (#35398996)

    without the “need for government subsidization.”

    ALL sources of energy receive subsidy. some examples : Oil (how much did all those wars cost?), coal(damage to public health=hidden subsidy), nuclear(research since the forties)

    • by Lennie (16154)

      Actually the oil industry in the US gets money from the government. This is because getting oil out of the ground in the US isn't very economically viable anymore.

      Maybe the last few months it wasn't necessary anymore because the oil price was high. But people really do (maybe did) get paid to do so.

  • by OrangeTide (124937) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:05PM (#35398998) Homepage Journal

    I pay about $0.10/kWh. (1000 W per Hour)

    • by tmosley (996283) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:10PM (#35399058)
      A watt is a unit of power, a watt hour is a unit of work. The goal is $1/W which means that a 1000 W system, which produces ~8KWh per day (more further south), only costs $1000, and would pay for itself in about three years, making it economically viable for most people.
      • a 1000 W system, which produces ~8KWh per day

        Pardon my ignorance, but shouldn't a 1000 W system produce 24 kWh per day, since there are 24 hours per day? Or is the 1000W input, and the 8kWh output?

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          The sun does not shine 24hours/day... at least not on our planet.

          • LOL, my bad.
            • Does the angle of the sun come into play here? Is it really the same at 4PM as at noon? Or is 1000 W an average?
              • by rcw-home (122017)

                Does the angle of the sun come into play here? Is it really the same at 4PM as at noon? Or is 1000 W an average?

                A number like 1000W would refer to the peak power output that you'll get from it with the solar cells perpendicular to the sunlight with optimally clear skies. Since the earth receives a maximum of about 1100W/m^2 of solar energy, and ordinary silicon cells are about 12% efficient, you can expect such a system to be a little less than 10 m^2 in size.

                4pm is not noon, no. First off, the lower the an

          • by Xacid (560407)

            Technically it does. You might just have to chase it around a little. ;)

          • by Jamu (852752)
            It certainly does. It's always illuminating half of our planet at any one time.
        • by Dunbal (464142) *
          No because the sun doesn't shine 24 hours per day. Also solar panels do not product 100% of their rated output if partially covered by shadows, debris, etc. Also you normally don't see solar panels that move to maintain the optimal angle with the sun except in very expensive set ups. Therefore you often need many more Watts' worth of solar panels than what you calculate your electrical usage as.
        • Divide that by pi to account for the varying angle of the sun through the typical day and you'll see it's quite close to the 8kWh they're claiming as an average.

          What you're doing this: \int{sin(x)dx_{0}^{pi}} \over \int{1_{0}^{2pi}}

          The assumption here being that you can approximate the output as P*{sin(x) : 0<=x<=pi ; 0 : elsewhere}

        • The short Answer is "NO". The reason for this is you never figure on more then 5 hours of Peak Sun unless you're at the equator, where you can figure 8 hours. The reason for this is pretty simple. It's called Axial Tilt, resulting in our seasons.

          Why the 5 hour figure is simple and it's called Winter. That's when you have less sunlight that provides energy due to angles of incidence. Sure a PV panel can provide some output if faced directly at the sunrise but until 9am it's going to continue increasing as th

      • It would have to cost 1 dollar per watt over the entire life of the device including manufacture, installation, and disposal.
    • by polar red (215081)

      they mean 1$ per maximum possible output wattage. (so a 1000000$ for a 1MW peak power plant)

      • I see. so 1MW system can deliver 1000 kWh every hour. At $0.11 running 24/7 it could theoretically bring in $964,000/year and basically pay for itself. Assuming everyone had to pay 11 cents (industry probably pays a lot less, these are just so numbers I made up).

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Dunbal (464142) *
          You are forgetting:

          1) Solar panels produce direct current, not alternating current. Direct current is almost impossible to transmit across any meaningful length of electric cable.

          2) Converting DC to AC is possible, however there are efficiency losses and thermal losses - these come out of your "profit"

          3) At some point you are going to need to replace your solar panels - they only last 15-25 years. You need to set money aside for this, unless you plan on shutting down your plant at the end of 15 years.

          • by Dunbal (464142) *
            my bad - there is no edit button - point 5 should read: the sun doesn't shine 24 hours a day...
          • by vlm (69642) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @04:13PM (#35399568)

            Direct current is almost impossible to transmit across any meaningful length of electric cable.

            Humorously, you have it exactly wrong. The longer the cable, the (relatively) cheaper the cost of HVDC conversion gear vs the rest of the project.

            The power delivered by a AC line is based on the RMS voltage. However you have to insulate to peak, which is somewhat more. Insulation is a pretty major design constraint, as arcs to the ground or towers is kind of a waste of power...

            As a very rough guess on a medium length line you can push about 1/4 to 1/3 more power for the same cost if you switch to DC.

            The power levels I'm talking about are a couple GWs, distances of dozens of miles, costs vaguely around gigadollars. Capital costs of about a buck a watt per 50 miles, lets say. You can see the motivation of placing plants nearby cities, rather than in the middle of nowhere.

            You can do long distance AC, and they used to, it just costs a heck of a lot more.

            • by Dunbal (464142) *
              Hmm? I thought the whole reason we use AC (thanks to Edison winning the argument with Tesla) was because there is less loss over long distances when compared to DC. Edison wanted One Big Plant generating power, and Tesla wanted many small, local plants. I guess I will have to re-read this - I apologize, I'm a biologist not a physicist.
              • That was the a century ago when people hadn't discovered how to step up and step down DC voltages. There're still problems with transmitting high voltage AC across long distances - many long distance runs are actually HVDC now.
              • Back in the original AC vs DC battle it was damn near impossible to raise DC voltages and damn difficult to lower them without wasting a large part.

                With AC a simple power transformer could raise the voltage on the lines. In the old days AC had a massive transmission line voltage advantage. These days it has the RMS disadvantage.

              • Hmm? I thought the whole reason we use AC (thanks to Edison winning the argument with Tesla) was because there is less loss over long distances when compared to DC. Edison wanted One Big Plant generating power, and Tesla wanted many small, local plants. I guess I will have to re-read this - I apologize, I'm a biologist not a physicist.

                You mean the argument that Edison *lost* - he was the big proponent of DC, while Tesla and Westinghouse were behind AC.

              • by DarkOx (621550) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @05:30PM (#35400126) Journal

                Wow, umm no.\\

                Go back and check your history. Edison LOST that argument with Tesla. Tesla wanted AC because it was better for running motors and was more efficient for long distance transmission. Edision wanted DC because its arguably safer.

                • It is high voltage that is more efficient for long distance transmission. The difference between AC and DC for that is that AC is relatively simple to step up in voltage with a relatively simple machine, a transformer.

                • by tylernt (581794) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @09:15PM (#35401668)

                  Tesla wanted AC because it ... was more efficient for long distance transmission.

                  With the technology of the time, sure. Modern semiconductors have made high voltage DC-DC conversion pretty darn efficient though:

                  "For long-distance transmission, HVDC systems may be less expensive and suffer lower electrical losses" -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hvdc [wikipedia.org]

                  better for running motors

                  Also, brushless DC motors have also made AC pointless (to an extent).

                • by linuxpyro (680927)

                  Edision wanted DC because its arguably safer.

                  Edison wanted DC because it was what he had started working with, and he wanted to keep using it.

                  The ironic thing though is that high voltage DC is actually kind of dangerous to work with, more so than similar AC voltages. This is because of the way inductance and capacitances behave as the frequency increases. As the frequency increases a capacitance starts to look more like a short, while an inductance starts to look more like an open. At DC (IE, at 0 Hz), it is the opposite. In DC, an inductance will

    • by Dr. Cody (554864)

      I pay about $0.10/kWh. (1000 W per Hour)

      The figure in the OP is highly non-standard usage. In the US, only the kilowatt is a unit of energy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by vlm (69642)

      I pay about $0.10/kWh. (1000 W per Hour)

      What it probably means is they're scammers. Capital costs for coal and nuke run from $1.50 to $3.00 per watt installed. They're claiming $1 per watt. The problem is no matter how unconventional the heat source, no matter how magically free, the employee lunchroom costs $ per plant, the parking lot paving costs $ per plant, the pipes from the magic heat source to the turbines costs $ per watt, the turbine itself costs $ per watt, the water pumps and filters cost $ per watt...

      PERHAPS they mean the capital

      • I pay about $0.10/kWh. (1000 W per Hour)

        What it probably means is they're scammers. Capital costs for coal and nuke run from $1.50 to $3.00 per watt installed. They're claiming $1 per watt. The problem is no matter how unconventional the heat source, no matter how magically free, the employee lunchroom costs $ per plant, the parking lot paving costs $ per plant, the pipes from the magic heat source to the turbines costs $ per watt, the turbine itself costs $ per watt, the water pumps and filters cost $ per watt...

        PERHAPS they mean the capital cost of their magic heat source alone costs about $1 per watt. The problem is some recent historical nukes (not in the backwards USA, but civilized countries like France, etc) have come in at $1.50 per watt total plant cost delivered. So, on one side, their costs probably will decline as they are new vs the very mature nuke industry. On the other hand, can you build an entire thermal electric plant for well under 50 cents per watt? Then again, can a new tech be nearly as reliable as ancient technology nuke plant?

        My impression (and damn these mindless 'articles') is that this is an ultimate goal. That figure isn't unreasonable even if it's cheaper than a coal fired plant. Small scale repetitive parts may well bring down capital costs compared to large purpose build structures - the employee break room is not the big ticket item in a nuc plant. Even if they don't get to the $1/watt figure, you have to remember that typical costs for nuc plants especially have enormous subsidies from the government in terms of was

      • by timeOday (582209)

        the pipes from the magic heat source to the turbines costs $ per watt, the turbine itself costs $ per watt, the water pumps and filters cost $ per watt...

        RTA, there are no pipes, turbine, pumps, nor filter. It's photovoltaic. I don't know whether they can beat a nuke plant in the real world, but the relative simplicity of this system compared to a nuclear power plant is certainly striking.

      • by Dunbal (464142) *

        Capital costs for coal and nuke run from $1.50 to $3.00 per watt installed.

        Absolutely meaningless because I am damned sure a coal burning station or a nuclear power plant do not have exactly the same lifetime. When dealing with capital costs you are interested in a return on your investment. The only way to calculate this is by knowing not only how much it costs up front, but how much it will cost per unit of time and how long it's expected to work. If it stops working before you get your money and opportu

      • Slow your roll, man! "Scammers??!!!"

        RIGHT NOW you can purchase thin film solar panels for $1/watt. Now, this doesn't include the inverters, which add more cost, nor labor or mounting hardware...but we are actually a lot closer to the threshold than you think.

        The theory is that if $1/watt is the installed cost of solar panels, including labor and inverters, and you don't have to pay for fuel, and the maintenance costs are very small, it would be cost competitive with conventional power sources. The cost s

        • by vlm (69642)

          But I can buy a whole French Nuke plant, delivered, the whole thing, not just a reactor, for $1.50/watt. Or maybe that was the Russian plant. And it runs 24/7 for years at a time... You're just talking about panels. Not mounting systems. Not active trackers, nor wiring, nor a control building.

          I bet I could build a PV ish plant using these $1/watt modules for maybe $1.50/watt. But that only outputs "nameplate power" half the time over the course of a year... Hmmm. Just nuke it.

          Scammers is a bit harsh

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      $1/W means you pay $1 to be able to produce 1 W over the lifetime of the solar cell (usually 20 or so years). Not to be confused with your kWh, we're not measuring the same thing. Just like if you use 2000kWh per month on your electric bill and try to set up a solar system, don't expect to be able to get away with only installing 2000W worth of solar panels...
  • by Aighearach (97333) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:05PM (#35399002) Homepage

    I always suspected that PV technology was just missing a glowing crystal ball.

    To the stars, Merlin!

  • by BlueParrot (965239) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:08PM (#35399032)

    If you are using concentrators for solar power you really ought to consider a thermal cycle like a brayton turbine or a sterling engine, rather than solar cells. Thermal cycles tend to have higher conversion efficiencies, the equipment is more reliable, and their power output is more easily converted to grid voltage ( AC as opposed to DC ). Solar cells also tend to see reduced lifetimes when used with very concentrated light. The advantage with cells is pretty much that they don't need concentrators to work, since they don't rely on a high temperature. They can also be used in places where space/weight is an issue, such as on sailboats, rooftops or sattelites. Thus if you are already using a bulky concentrator to get the light intensity up, you may as well use a sterling engine.

     

    • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:24PM (#35399168)

      If you are doing a thermal cycle with concentrators, you need a *big* system. Small thermal engines aren't much more efficient than garden variety solar cells. (And presumably, concentrated solar would use high-tech cells that rival the efficiency of big heat engines anyway.) That means that you have to use a complex "power tower" arrangement with a field of precision synchronized mirrors pointed at one huge collector. You also need a big cold sink for thermal cycles; most power plants use a bunch of water for that, which is hard to come by in the desert.

      The solar cell approach would also have the advantage of mechanical simplicity, and the ability to add capacity in small self-contained increments.

      • by jmorris42 (1458) *

        If you are using concentrators you either take a huge loss because solar cell output drops off at high temp (and suffer shortened service life) or you end up with a cooling system for the cells. Once you have the cooling system you should just yield to the physics and accept that the best use of concentrated sunlight is in heat, not direct conversion to electricity. Solar cells only convert a few frequencies (three in the article for this story) while dumping the light over to heat uses much more of the s

        • So? At the end of the day, overall net system efficiency is what matters. Heat engines will always be saddled with the laws of thermodynamics, which force them to waste much of your enhanced spectrum. Solar cells, without the limitations of the Carnot cycle, can convert more of the available energy in the part of the spectrum that they *do* use.

          Solar cells also don't need to be cooled to the same low temperatures that the outlet of a heat engine requires to run efficiently. In the desert, that's much easier

          • by vlm (69642)

            The problem is the Carnot eff at a relatively cool nuke plant is still around/over 33%. Good luck finding a production off the shelf solar cell with decades of operating experience that can dream of reaching 33% efficiency.

            If you're willing to try "exotic" PV units, I want to try "exotic" carnot units, like maybe a century old binary fluid system like the old fashioned two stage mercury and water system. Maybe something a little less toxic that vaporized mercury. A century or so ago those ran around 50%

        • Presumably, most of the cost in this system is the concentrators, not the PV cells. So, perhaps the PV cells can be replaced when they deteriorate without driving the overall system cost up too much.

    • Instead of using expensive PV cells, the solar telescope uses commercially available triple-junction solar cells

      In fact, triple-junction cells are far more expensive than garden-variety PV cells. The cost savings come from the fact that sunlight is concentrated onto a much smaller area of cells. And this is hardly the first company that has applied that idea; for example, see Energy Innovations, Inc. [energyinnovations.com]

      Roger Angel has designed a new type of solar concentrator that uses half the area of solar (PV) cells used b

  • It doesn't work at night when you need electricity to power your lights. Which is especially a problem in the long winter nights when you need to heat your home. Can we please finally put this solar-for-everyone nonsense to bed?
    • by Aighearach (97333) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:19PM (#35399120) Homepage

      If only somebody would invent some sort of device that could store electricity for later use.

      Then I could finally ditch the diesel generator I have to drag around to keep my mp3 player running!

      • And then you'd have the fun and moral satisfaction of purchasing a new set of heavy duty batteries every year or two. Mind you that would be a very large set, to account for the possibility of many short cloudy winter days in a row.
      • by jmorris42 (1458) * <`jmorris' `at' `beau.org'> on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:45PM (#35399326)

        Look into the efficiency of a battery sometime. Unless you buy really expensive ones you lose about half of the energy putting it into and getting it back out. More losses if you are putting in AC and needing AC back out. And the really good (from an efficiency pov) lithium-ion batteries don't suffer many charge discharge cycles before hitting the 50% capacity point generally considered as replacement time. We currently have zero methods to store electricity that are cheap enough and effective enough for use on the grid. All electricity is generated as needed, with vast arrays of 'peaking power' generation capacity that largely sits idle. Believe me, if there were a good way to store electricity the industry would be using it already.

        Worse, while electricity can be sent large distances, it is best to generate close to the point of use because of the line losses. So even if we were willing (and shot enough enviromentalists) to cover our deserts with solar arrays we would lose most of the power heating the lines getting it to where the customers are. Same for wind, it mostly occurs in areas where there aren't many people... or more accurately windmills near populated areas attracts more environmentalists.

        • You pump water up hill at night, then use it for power during the day.

          Yes fish blend.

        • Uhh, ever heard of compressed air and salt caverns? That method is cheap and allows storage of large amounts of energy.

      • The sound you are hearing is not a diesel generator, it is the background "melody" of your songs. You need to stop letting your grandchildren (whose existence I infer from your five-digit UID) upload the music which is on your mp3 player.

    • Energy consumption is largest during the day, and thus solar can actually help do some load leveling. Yea, you can't get all the energy from solar, but having the plant peak in power output around noon is actually a good thing.

    • by Desler (1608317)

      Who ever claims that solar is for everyone despite a minority of kooks? Anyone sensible knows that you need to store excess generated energy in batteries for later or to have a backup generator for when night comes. What you are doing is the classic strawman.

    • by cduffy (652) <charles+slashdot@dyfis.net> on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:46PM (#35399336)

      If electricity is cheap in the daytime and scarce/expensive at night, the market will figure it out.

      Maybe that means people have incentive to charge their cars at work. Maybe it means entrepreneurs buy excess electricity on the spot market during the daytime, use it to pump water uphill, and use the potential energy of that water to generate more expensive electricity at night. (Is that process lossy? Sure! But the market will only reward it if it provides a net benefit, so it's all good. Same for battery / ultracapacitor / other technologies -- if they're a good fit for the problem, someone will make money using them; if not, they won't).

      • (Is that process lossy? Sure! But the market will only reward it if it provides a net benefit or focuses supply to a few producers, so it's all good.

        Fixed that for you. No need to even yield net benefit if you can choke supply. Ask OPEC.

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      Peak electricity demand is lunch-time and supper-time. Lunch-time is pretty much covered with solar, and depending where you live, a good chunk of supper-time is too. "Powering lights" is by no means the biggest use of energy, even if lights is all you see when you look outside at night-time. The biggest energy consumption comes from things used to make heat (cooking, hot water) and everything with a motor (cooking again, air conditioning, laundry). Your light bulbs (especially nowadays with LED's and compa
    • by cgenman (325138)

      We have an energy surplus at night, due to things like nuclear facilities that run at the same output no matter the demand. Really, we need to expand our power system to handle larger peak energy during the day, when everyone is running their air conditioners. Expanding into more nuclear is politically difficult. Gas and Coal are polluting. Solar would help us during the day, when power usage is highest.

      So no, no one energy source can be our only generation point. But solar could definitely help when i

  • by kikito (971480) on Sunday March 06, 2011 @03:23PM (#35399158) Homepage

    ... ATTACK!

    ... And when we get the energy ...

    ... GET DRUNK! [youtube.com]

  • Roger Angel is an astronomer. He's done good work on telescope design. Hence the fascination with mirrors.

    There have been many elaborate schemes for solar power using collecting optics. [solar-concentrators.com] The mirrors and supporting machinery usually end up costing more than you save by having less silicon area. Flat solar panels are simple to install, can be made resistant to high winds, and require minimal maintenance.

    • Yes, when I saw the picture of their device I was concerned about winds. They make a big deal about the fact that it's made of out lightweight alloys. But the forces due to wind would be much greater than the gravitational forces, and the structure doens't look as if it is built in a way that you could collapse it somehow if a storm is expected.
  • by Arlet (29997)

    Solar concentrators have a disadvantage that they only work on clear days. On cloudy days, the light won't concentrate, and they're useless. Still useful in some areas with lots of direct sunshine, but not where I live, for instance.

  • The article seems imply that the fact that it requires so much maintenance is good because it's all local. But no matter where the maintenance jobs are, they cost money, and thus make it uncompetitive...

I'd rather just believe that it's done by little elves running around.

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