Concentrating Solar Power ALCOA and NREL are testing a low cost concentrating solar array

Published on March 21st, 2010 | by Tina Casey


We Are Thisclose to Affordable Concentrating Solar Power – And More Green Jobs, Too

March 21st, 2010 by  

ALCOA and NREL are testing a low cost concentrating solar arrayPittsburgh-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

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • A ha-ha is just what’s needed to lighten things up a dash. “We’re so broke that if a guy rings our doorbell I have to yell, “Ding Dong!” out the door.”

  • The solar industry is becoming more interesting by the day, small companies are stealing executives from larger companies and partnerships, joint ventures and merger and acquisitions will make the products from this sector become more practical, easy to use and affordable. Thanks for the article, well done.

  • Aluminum may be abundant, and cheap in material; but melting it down for manufacture or recycling is one of the most energy intensive processes in metalurgy. a process that only became affordable with the rise of fossil fuels.

    if alcoa can provide the power for their own aluminum production with their own solar concentrators, then that puts them way ahead of the game. that is to say, actually sustainable.

  • Low cost CSP solar is already here for solar/hybrids using Direct Steam Technology. This DSG technology does not use a two-phase water/steam (boiling water) in a horizontal receivers commonly associated with Direct Steam Generation. Projects are in the design phase in SE Asia and China while Utilities and IPPs in US are only interested 80s tech with small improvements.

  • I would like to know if you are considering a form of solar for LED Parking Lot Lights and such.

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