Technology to store solar energy

Solar power was one of the first innovations in environmentally friendly energy and continues to be one of the most popular sources of nonfossil fuel energy today.

While solar power has many merits, detractors have long bemoaned the inability to store solar energy for use during the night or when it’s cloudy.

The biggest downside to solar energy is that solar panels simply harness the sun’s rays as they are shining and immediately transform those rays into electricity.

The sun’s power forms what can be described as an overflowing cup effect. What’s not being used as electricity simply overflows and is wasted, since solar panels cannot store the excess energy for later.

But research is ongoing to develop technology that can store energy for later use.

Solar power experts say that storing energy in a battery is inefficient and expensive. The key could be solar thermal storage. Think about how a coffee thermos works. The insulated cup can keep the coffee hot for hours and is relatively inexpensive. On the other hand, a battery can also store power for hours but is more expensive to produce.

With solar thermal storage, systems will gather heat from the sun, boil water into steam, spin a turbine and make power— just as existing solar thermal power plants do. But this power wouldn’t be produced immediately. Instead, the heat would be stored for hours or days.

Other innovators are looking to heat a tower of molten salt that can be heated to very high temperatures.

The advantages to stored solar power is that none of the sun’s rays are wasted and that solar energy can be used at times when the sun is not shining, such as on cloudy days or at night. Power can also be sold at premium prices depending on demand. This enables companies to make more profit.

Until solar thermal storage facilities are widespread and producing electricity similar to the traditional electricity grid, those interested in solar power have to settle with the individual solar panels that businesses and homes have relied on for years. But in the not-so-distant-future, solar energy could be responsible for powering cities and industry.

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2011-05-12 digital edition

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