Hopefully by the end of this summer, the Ivanpah facility in California’s Mojave Desert will become the world’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant, delivering 392 megawatts of energy, enough to power 140,000 homes in the region. It’s one of several desert-based solar energy projects in the US, the Middle East, and Africa that have been built or are in the process of being built. However, progress towards increasing the number or energy output of these projects has been slow, despite engineers’ beliefs that policy and market dynamics, not technology, are the primary hindrances.
What’s the Big Idea?
Given the amount of total sunlight Earth’s deserts receive — more in six hours than the entire world uses in a year — it makes sense to try to capture as much of it as possible. Three major factors preventing a larger build-out are the lack of water needed for cooling a plant and cleaning solar panels, the amount of dust affecting panel efficiency, and the cost of building long-distance high-voltage transmission lines. Again, engineers say that from a technical standpoint there are workarounds to most of these issues — water-free electrostatic cleaning, for example — and the scaling-back of many CSP projects is mainly due to other factors.