Solar thermal questions

To round out the controversial critique of solar power started here, I reproduce below the most detailed critical analysis I’ve read on solar thermal electricity. It’s written by a University of NSW academic, Ted Trainer. I’d strongly encourage you to read his full 44-page set of arguments on the inability of renewable energy to sustain an energy intensive society (an earlier version of which was reviewed last year on BNC — this provides an updated summary of his 2007 peer-reviewed book on this topic, published by Springer).

For context Ted and I agree on many things, but not all. We both acknowledge the seriousness of the climate crisis and the magnitude of the sustainability problems caused by humanity’s overexploitation of natural environments. We differ in that Trainer sees only one viable solution — a rapid, planet-wide ‘power down’ of civilisation to some ‘simpler way’ (read here for his well-mapped-out thesis).

In the past year Tom Blees and I have exchanged a number of emails with Ted, in which we’ve talked about Generation IV nuclear power (IFR in particular), proposing it as a potential ‘uranium-thorium bullet’ to solve the energy crisis — and, as a result, providing the clean energy to solve a whole host of global problems such as climate change, water supply, agricultural sustainability and repairing the damage we’ve inflicted on natural systems. To his credit, Ted has looked at my arguments seriously, and has come up with a range of questions on Gen IV nuclear on which he requires ‘clear and convincing information’. As such, in a future post on BNC, I intend to address his nuclear critiques. But that’ s for another day.

The examination of solar thermal electricity given below is quite detailed, yet necessarily incomplete. Reliable data are simply lacking on many critical points. At the foot of this post, I list some key knowledge gaps on which Ted seeks further data. Perhaps you can help. For now, read on!


SOLAR THERMAL ELECTRICITY (for the reference list, see here)

Ted Trainer

The major drawback for renewable energy is the inability to store electricity from intermittent sources.  Solar thermal technologies are especially valuable because they can store heat and use it to generate electricity when it is needed.  Some believe this capacity will be the key to enable renewable energy sources to meet all electricity needs (e.g., Trieb, undated, Czisch, 2004), for example plugging gaps left by PV and wind.

Solar thermal systems are best suited to the hottest regions and it is not clear how far into the mid latitudes they can be effective, apart from via very long transmission lines.  They seem to be especially doubtful in winter, even in the best locations.  (For a more detailed discussion of solar thermal’s limits and potential see Trainer, 2008.). Trough systems will be considered first, then dishes.


The winter electrical output for the US SEGS VI trough system is reported at about 20% of summer output. (NREL, personal communication.) Modelling for Central Australia, possibly the best solar thermal location in the world, by Odeh, Behnia and Morrison (2003) produces a figure closer to 12%.

The SEGS VI plant with its north-south troughs was not designed to maximise winter performance.  Arranging the troughs on an east-west axis, as distinct from the usual north-south axis, would raise the winter/summer ratio for energy entering a trough. (“Polar axis” alignment of troughs enables maximum energy yield, but is not feasible for large scale power generation.)  However even in good solar thermal regions the performance of east-west troughs in winter (and summer) is relatively low, compared with the summer and annual average performance of north-south troughs.  This is evident in Figure 1 from Odeh, Behmia and Morrison.  Summer thermal energy (not electrical output) entering a NS trough at Alice Springs would be 780 MJ/m/month, (in this document  “m” represents square metre) whereas in winter from and EW trough it would be 430 MJ/m/month, or 4 kWh/m/day.

The radiation data given by RREDC (undated), Meteonorm and ASRDHB, 2005,  point to the same general conclusion.  These sources indicate that Alice Springs is a better location than Egypt, receiving possibly 50% more solar energy per metre in winter.  It also seems to be a little better than the SW US.  Thus if solar thermal technologies are problematic in winter at Alice Springs they are not likely to be viable in the US or for Europe.

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