Note to Silicon Valley’s solar thermal startups: Masdar is coming. Abu Dhabi’s alternative energy initiative Masdar and Spanish engineering group Sener said Wednesday they’re creating a joint venture to build solar thermal power plants. Sener will own 60 percent of the new partnership, known as Torresol Energy; Masdar will have a 40-percent stake.
Torresol will start work on three solar thermal power plants in Spain, representing a whopping €800 million (or $1.24 billion) investment. And as a rep from the company stressed to us, this figure has been upwardly revised from the €500 million cited in the release.
Solar thermal plants use mirrors and/or lenses to focus the sun’s light onto a receiver which absorbs the energy as heat. The heat is used to create steam and power turbines to produce electricity. There are a variety of designs and technologies used in these massive power plants, and companies are working on innovations to reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of the process.
One of Torresol’s plants will use an array of heliostats surrounding a central tower receiver (pictured below), which the company claims will be the technology’s first commercial deployment. This is same centralized power tower design that startups like BrightSource, SolarReserve and eSolar are planning on using.
Sandia National Laboratories has been developing this technology since the 1970s and successfully demonstrated it at their Solar Two installation using molten salt in the central receiver. The surrounding array of heliostats, or sun-tracking mirrors, reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a central receiver, generating a great amount of heat. The design is more efficient because all of the heat exchanging and steam generation take place inside the central tower, but the heliostats are also delicate and expensive.
The other two Spanish plants in the works will use parabolic trough technology, Torresol tells us. Startups like Solel are also using the trough approach, which heats liquid-filled tubes. The hot liquid must be pumped to a steam generator at an energy cost, but the troughs are supposed to be more robust than heliostats.
Torresol also has some even loftier hopes for its solar thermal technology. The company plans to “facilitate” 500 megawatts of concentrating solar power plants around the world by 2012, in places like the American Southwest, the Middle East, North Africa and Northern Australia.