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Cool Earth Solar: Solar Power from "Balloons"

This is a guest post by Tom Schueneman, publisher of

Cool Earth Solar reshaping solar energy

Cool Earth Solar says it’s technology will “reshape solar energy” – literally.

One of the more thorny issues with any form renewable energy is collecting it. There is plenty of wind to meet our energy needs, the trick is “harvesting” it. The same goes of solar. As Cool Earth Solar’s CEO Rob Lamkin says, “If you’re going to replace hydrocarbons with solar, you’re going to need a lot of collecting surface.”

Cool Earth Solar, based in Livermore, California addresses the need for “a lot of collecting surface”, claiming the ability to cheaply harvest solar energy not in terms of kilowatts or megawatts, but gigawatts of power.

Focusing Sunlight

Instead of using flat collector panels or “boxes-with-lenses” requiring heavy, expensive materials to work, Cool Earth Solar uses what is essentially an eight-foot-tall balloon – called a concentrator – made of a thin plastic film similar to the kind of stuff used for potato chip bags and such. The concentrator has a transparent upper hemisphere and reflective lower hemisphere that, when inflated, forms a shape that naturally focuses sunlight on a photovoltaic cell held at the focal point.

The design is simple in its concept, requires no new technology, and produces 300 to 400 times the electricity that same cell could produce without the concentrator.

The concentrator’s light infrastructure and use of fewer expensive PV cells, along with its scalability, makes it already competitive with electricity generated from natural gas, as Lamkin said in the latest issue of Discover magazine: “…the bottom line is that today we can generate electricity as cheaply as, or more cheaply than, we do natural gas – and we expect to pass coal soon. ”

Ruffians with BB guns

Some of the challenges Lamkin sees with the with the concentrator is the longevity of the thin film, estimating that it would need replacement every couple of years. But since a single unit only uses a few dollars worth of plastic, says Lamkin, “…it’s not something that is going to hurt us.”

Then there’s the problem of young ruffians with BB guns. But that sort of problem isn’t exclusive to this technology.

Solar Balloon Farm

Solar concentrators weigh about 20 pounds each when inflated and are supported by wire cable strung between wooden poles or lightweight aluminum towers. Each unit is capable of generating up to 1 kilowatt of electricity and withstanding 125 mile-per-hour winds.

Cool Earth Solar is currently working on a quarter-million-watt demonstration plant in Livermore as well as a utility scale 1.5-million watt plant in Tracy, California.

Within a year’s time, Lamkin hopes to start building standardized 10 to 30 megawatt plants. A 30 megawatt plant will require 30,000 balloons. If things go as planned, Lamkin hopes Cool Earth will add hundreds of megawatts of generating capacity every year, selling the power directly to utility companies.

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Written By

is an online publisher, editor, and freelance writer. He is the founder of and the History Blog Project, as well as publisher and site director for the Tom also contributes to numerous environmental blogs, including TriplePundit, Ecopolitology, Sustainablog, and Planetsave.   Tom's work has led him to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, the South Pacific, and across the United States. His home base is San Francisco, California.


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