Pittsburgh-based Alcoa and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory have partnered up to take us another step closer to low cost solar power. The lab is hosting a test run of Alcoa’s new concentrating solar power technology, which was designed to be competitive in the U.S. energy market partly due to a low cost, energy efficient process. It could also result in more green jobs in manufacturing – if the company takes advantage of opportunities in the U.S.
Conventional solar technology relies on glass mirrors, and glass is not Alcoa’s area of expertise. That would be aluminum, one of the world’s most inexpensive and abundant metals. In addition to its other advantages Alcoa notes that aluminum can be “infinitely recycled” (nicely put!), which is something to think about for future sustainability because at this rate the world will soon be awash in solar panels.
Alcoa and Concentrating Solar Power
Alcoa’s design is based on a parabolic trough, which generates energy more efficiently by concentrating the sun’s rays. It replaces glass with reflective aluminum mirrors, which according to Alcoa lend themselves to more economical, high-volume production. Alcoa’s design includes thermal storage, enabling the system to store power and draw it at night or during overcast daylight. The system can be used to run a steam turbine and generate electricity up to utility scale.
Low Cost Solar Power
Alcoa is on track with several emerging trends that are helping to lower the cost of solar power, which includes designing systems that minimize shipping and installation costs for the customer. A second trend is the development of low-cost materials for solar panels which are not as efficient as new high tech innovations but are potentially more affordable. Third is to leverage the expertise and resources of existing industries, specifically aerospace and auto manufacturing, to enable high-efficiency solar panel manufacturing that helps reduce costs through volume of scale. The SunCatcher concentrating solar dish recently tested at Sandia National Laboratories is another example of this trend, using a familiar stamped metal manufacturing process (hello, green jobs in the Rust Belt!). The use of non-toxic materials in solar panels is another big trend that can help reduce lifecycle costs including manufacturing and eventual disposal or recycling.
On Beyond Low Cost Solar Power
Solar power with a relatively low rate of efficiency could also compete with fossil fuels by piggybacking with buildings or operations on a particular site. One rapidly growing example is the use of solar panels that are integrated into building elements such as walls, windows or roofs, a trend that has caught attention in the affordable housing field. One company is even developing a system that combines concentrating solar energy with the potential for aquaculture.
Image: Sunlight by Pink Sherbert Photography on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.