How concentrating solar power works

From towers to dishes to linear mirrors to troughs, concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies reflect and collect solar heat to generate electricity. A single CSP plant can generate enough power for about 90,000 homes. This video explains what CSP is, how it works, and how systems like parabolic troughs produce renewable power.

Video source: U.S. Department of Energy / YouTube.

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NARRATOR: Okay, take the natural heat from the sun, reflect it against a mirror, focus all of that heat on one area, send it through a power system, and you've got a renewable way of making electricity. It's called Concentrating Solar Power, or CSP.

Now there are many types of CSP technologies. Towers, dishes, linear mirrors, and troughs. Okay, have a look at this parabolic trough system. Parabolic troughs are large mirrors shaped like a giant U. These troughs are connected together in long lines and will track the sun throughout the day. When the sun's heat is reflected off the mirror, the curved shape sends most of that reflected heat onto a receiver. The receiver tube is filled with a fluid and could be oil, molten salt, something that holds the heat well.

Basically, this super-hot liquid heats water in this thing called a heat exchanger, and the water turns to steam. Now the steam is sent off to a turbine, and from there, it's business as usual inside a power plant. A steam turbine spins a generator, and the generator makes electricity. Once the fluid transfers its heat, it's recycled and used over and over, and the steam is also cooled, condensed and recycled again and again. One big advantage of these trough systems is that the heated fluid can be stored and used later to keep making electricity when the sun isn't shining.

Sunny skies and hot temperatures make the southwest US an ideal place for these kinds of power plants. Many concentrated solar power plants could be built within the next several years, and a single plant could generate 250 megawatts or more, which is enough to power about 90,000 homes. That's a lot of electricity to meet America's power needs.

Concentrating solar thermal

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