Utah's Solar Fired Furnace to Power California for Less Than the Cost of Coal or Gas

July 30, 2008

In an arid region of the western U.S. known as the Great Basin, the desert floor has recently been reaching temperatures in excess of 1,300 degrees Farenheit. No, this isn't due to global warming, but perhaps part of the solution to it. A Utah based company called IAUS (International Automated Systems Inc.) has developed a solar lens technology that transmits solar energy with an efficiency of 92%.

A California energy consortium has invested in the first stage of the project. Twenty specially designed solar towers are being erected close to the Great Basin in Delta, Utah. Each tower holds four solar lenses that follow the sun as it crosses the clear blue desert sky. Each lens will focus the sun's rays onto specially designed heat exchangers that will convert the solar energy to super-heated steam. The heat exchangers double as high-efficiency turbines that will drive electrical generators to produce alternating current output.

Later stages will involve placing 1000 towers over 700 acres of desert. With each tower having a capacity to produce 100 kW of power, the entire field stands to produce close to 100 MW of power when finished. That's enough energy to power 50,000 average Californian homes. Once generated, the power will travel around five miles to be integrated with the U.S. national power grid.

The key to the success of the project are the unique thin-film solar lenses. Lenses of this size are typically heavy and expensive to produce. IAUS have developed a technique of embedding magnifying material into cheap, light, rolled plastic. The plastic is composited into extremely large Fresnel lenses. The lenses are light, relatively cheap to manufacture and easy to maintain. This compares favourably with traditional solar collectors.

The plant is located in one of the best solar locations in the country due to its high altitude and thin air. Solar energy is absorbed as it travels through our atmosphere, so placing a solar energy plant in a rarefied environment allows more solar radiation to be captured. IAUS also point out that the land on which the final solar plant is to be situated is one tenth the price of equivalent land in California. Combined with the comparatively inexpensive cost of the plant equipment, this means that the entire facility would cost roughly half of what a coal fired power plant would cost to construct.

The solar power plant will produce no pollutants and any CO2 used in its production will be quickly offset by its operation. Coal, and other fossil fuels must be extracted from the earth and transported to antiquated furnaces for burning, increasing the solar plant's attractiveness, as its fuel is delivered daily by the sun. Although the sun does not always shine on the solar plant, the company believe that using a heat storage mechanism, they can deliver power around the clock at an estimated production cost of 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour. With such competitive production costs, IAUS say that their solar power plant will not only beat the price of coal, but be the first commercial solar power plant to compete favourably with gas powered stations.

Every hour, enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth to satisfy the power needs of the whole planet for an entire year. Yet, at present only 1% of the worlds energy is derived from solar power. Will the Utah solar power plant be the nexus that changes all of that? Let's hope so. IAUS have a similar project under way in Texas and interest in the solar power project has been observed as far afield as China and Australia.