Molten salt solar power plants

Biggest molten salt solar power plants in the world

Over 100 countries worldwide are building solar power plants and the installed capacity in 2010 has reached 40,000 MW. This is expected to grow 20% a year despite the problems that solar power production happens only in daylight hours and power output can also be affected by clouds. This intermittent nature of solar power needs some form of energy storage to even out such fluctuations. Use of storage batteries is impractical for the large solar power plants now being built.

A solution that has emerged from Rocketdyne, a United Technologies group company, is the use of molten salt to store sun energy for use beyond the daytime. The salt used is a mixture of Potassium and Sodium Nitrates in a 60:40 ratio. These salts are abundant and non-toxic. In fact, these salts are used as soil fertilizers. The principal reason for use of these molten salts is that they can be heated to temperatures over a 1000 degrees F without decomposition and they store thermal energy for long periods up to 15 hours. The cost of power production from molten salt is attractive at 5 cents per KWH. A pilot plant of 10 MW capacity was built and operated in the Mojave desert between 1994-98 to prove the technology. Power plants incorporating heliostats and thermal storage are termed Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants.

Rocketdyne has been a leader in the development of rocket engines for the US space program and has applied its knowledge of handling rocket fuels and advanced metallurgy for development of what they call “The Power Tower”. In molten salt power plants, the sunlight is reflected by mirrors (called heliostats) on to a tower that contains the molten salt. The radiated solar energy heats the salt to 1050 degrees F. The high temperature molten salt is pumped through heat exchangers to produce steam, that is then used to drive turbines for power production. The storage of sun energy in molten salt acts as the buffer to continue production of solar power, when photovoltaic generation stops in the night time or reduces due to overcast skies. The Power Tower technology has also been applied to fossil fuel burning power plants to hybridize them by adding solar steam production to replace a part of their fossil fuel usage. Another interesting application of this technology is to produce hydrogen with solar energy.

The major issue with CSP technology is the large land area needed for the heliostats. Many projects are under development around the world and the outcome of these projects could trigger even wider adoption of this technology.

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