Beam me up Sunny!

Feature story - 25 May, 2009
Solar power is for wimps. You'd be forgiven if that was the impression you had, given that it's been the (usually) implicit message coming from the oil and coal industries for decades now. Obviously, they don't want you to know about the real potential for solar energy. You can easily melt steel by concentrating the sun's energy, but... not a lot of people know that!

The technology to avoid catastrophic climate change already exists. We just need to install it.

Concentrating Solar Power systems are the next big thing in renewable energy. They produce electricity using hundreds of mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays to a temperature between 400 and 1000 degrees Celsius. Put into context - bacteria die at 50 degrees, water boils at 100 degrees and volcanic lava is 1000 degrees Celsius. CSP uses direct sunlight called "beam radiation" - this is the sunlight that is not deviated by clouds, fumes or dust in the atmosphere.

Suitable sites for CSP are those with large amounts of these beams, ideally located between the equator and 40 degrees latitude north or south. A range of technologies can be used to concentrate and collect sunlight and to turn it into medium to high temperature heat. This heat is then used to create electricity in a conventional way - using a steam or gas turbine or a Stirling engine. 

A revolution just waiting to happen

In a very short time, the technology has demonstrated hugetechnological and economic promise. It has one major advantage - amassive renewable resource, the sun - and very few downsides. For regions as sunny as California, CSP offers the same opportunity asthe large offshore wind farms in Europe. Concentrating solar power togenerate bulk electricity is one of the technologies best-suited tomitigating climate change in an affordable way, as well as reducing theconsumption of fossil fuels.

CSP has actually been around for more than a century. The first systems were installed in 1912 near Cairo in Egypt to generate steam for a pump that delivered water for irrigation.  It was competitive with coal-fired installations in regions where coal was expensive. But coal got cheaper - even as the expense to our planet's ecosystem has skyrocketed.

Commercial applications of CSP were not developed until the mid 1980s. The first large-scale stations were built in California's Mojave Desert and the biggest projects currently under construction are in Calafornia and Spain. CSP is now the thirdmulti-billion dollar industry for clean power generation having expanded rapidly over the pastfive years to become a mass-producedand mainstream energy generation solution. It can deliverreliable industry-scale power around the clock thanks to modern storagetechnologies and hybrid operations. 

We've got the power!

Our latest report, Global Concentrating Solar Power Outlook 2009 (published jointly with the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and the International Energy Agency's SolarPACES) charts a number of scenarios for development of CSP as part of the energy revolution which the world needs if we are to avoid the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change.

Here, with a nod to the Harpers Index, is CSP by the numbers:


Square Kilometers of land in sun-rich regions needed to generate 100-130 gigawatts/year


Percent of the Sahara desert that would be needed to meet the world’s energy needs


Number of coal fired power plants we could retire by 2020 under an ambitious CSP scenario


Number of coal fired power plants we could retire by 2050


temperature in degrees, Celsius, which a CSP plant produces


temperature in degrees, Celsius, of molten lava


jobs that CSP could create by 2020


jobs that CSP could create by 2050.


Barrels of oil that a 1 Sq Km installation would save


Tonnes of CO2 emissions which CSP could save by 2020


Tonnes of CO2 emissions which CSP could save by 2050

To put the last two figures in perspective, the CO2 generated by Australia alone is 394 million tonnes annually; Germany has annual CO2 emission of 823 million tonnes - equal to the CO2 emissions of the whole African continent.

Who's the wimp now?

Investment in CSP will this year exceed 2 billion euros (USD 2.58 billion) and could be worth 20.8 billion euros (USD 26.8 billion). Our report outlines how Concentrating Solar Power can meet up to 7 percent of the world's projected power needs in 2030 and a full quarter by 2050 (under an advanced industry development scenario).

Amazingly, CSP can achieve about 20 percent of the total reduction of energy-related carbon emissions needed to save the climate!

Take Action

At the United Nations Climate Summit in Copenhagen this December. Decisions impacting the lives of everyone on the planet will be made. Ask world leaders to personally attend this meeting and ensure that we're all given the best chance to avoid runaway climate change

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