Saturday, June 2, 2018

DOE to Fund $72 Million Bird Incinerator

That was a deliberately inflammatory title - and deliberately chosen pun to go with it.

The actual story is that the DOE has agreed to $72 million dollar funding of another concentrated solar power system like the famous Ivanpah facility in the California desert.  Ivanpah is famous for incinerating birds that come to feed on the insects being incinerated by the solar concentrater.

The goal of the project is to increase the temperature of the working fluid up to 700 C (1292 F).  Ivanpah and some other facilities run at temperatures from 300 to 550 C.  Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) systems are more efficient the higher the temperature difference they work with.   Increasing the temperature to 700°C promises greater efficiency.  They're calculating they could reach 50% efficiency. 
Light beams can be concentrated by refraction through a lens (a magnifying glass), or through curved mirrors, to produce extremely high temperatures. Commercial scale CSP facilities like the recently completed Noor I power plant in the Sahara Desert in Morocco use 500,000 crescent-shaped mirrors that track the sun across the sky. Noor I can produce up to 160 megawatts while operating at almost 400°C. Similarly, Ivanpah, the world’s largest CSP facility—located near the California and Nevada border—has 300,000 mirrors that concentrate the sun’s energy onto three 459-foot-high towers. Power production from the 3,500-acre Ivanpah site is rated at 377 megawatts with operating temperatures as high as 565°C.
The reason they're funding this as research is that the current technologies, which use molten nitrate salts to transfer the heat, won't work at the higher temperatures.  The setup is a competition between three contenders that will be tested by different teams:
  • Brayton Energy, Hampton, New Hampshire: $7.6 million — gas phase system
  • Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico: $9.5 million — falling particle system
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Golden, Colorado: $7 million — liquid (molten salt) system
Over a two-year period, each team will develop and test materials, concepts, and critical components using its assigned thermal transport technology. Each will also create detailed plans to build an integrated CSP facility. At the end of the two-years, one of the technologies will be chosen to move ahead with the construction of a $25 million pilot facility over a period of three years.
I find it curious that nobody is talking about using molten sodium (metal), which has been researched extensively by the nuclear power industry (remember KRUSTY the NASA nuclear power project? It used molten sodium).  Sodium melts at conveniently low temperature, 97.72 C (207.9F) and doesn't boil until 882.85 C (1621F). 

The big picture is that the DOE is trying to drive more energy production to solar, and if they achieve 50% they'll be doing better than practical photovoltaics (PV; solar cells) do.
The CSP project announced is part of a bigger effort on the part of DOE to drive the cost of solar energy down. For example, the target for the cost of PV is $0.03 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) by 2030. The CSP target is $0.05/kWh by 2030. But the PV costs do not include storage, where the storage and ability to generate electricity when the sun isn’t shining is built into the thermal CSP system. Shultz notes that if a plant has 12 or more hours of thermal energy storage capacity, then it can operate on the order of 70% of the time. But a PV without storage can only operate 20-25% of the time. “What we see, if we hit these targets, is that CSP seems to have a lot of value,” said Shultz.

The Ivanapah CSP facility. 

We can argue this isn't a valid function of the federal government, but that's like arguing that minimum wage laws harm workers and raising the minimum wage will cause inflation.  In both cases we'd be right and nothing would change.


  1. PragerU must watch videos

    ps. would you consider adding CC to your blogroll?

  2. They claim the goal is to "drive the cost of solar energy down." Yet, they subsidize it. Make no mistake the various subsidies are discounted in determining the cost of this energy. If this facility had no federal and state subsidies the cost would be closer to $.30 kWh. It simply isn't practical, but some rich donor bought enough politicians and they have agreed to make that donor a multi-billionaire thanks to the American taxpayer. Also it is worth noting that the billionaire(s) we are creating aren't even American billionaires. All the graft money is going overseas...

  3. If I recall a similar type plant was closed in Spain a few years ago because the manpower required to keep the mirrors clean made it uneconomical. Bob L.

    1. One of the problems with photovoltaics around here is that they get covered in bird poop.

      It's nice to think you get lots of free energy from solar cells, but it can knock the efficiency of a system down quite a bit if they're dirty.

    2. ....Or covered in snow, as happens frequently here in the Winter.

      PV Solar is huge out here. I shooed two salesmen away in the last couple of weeks. I'm not against it, per se, but we had the energy audit done in SoCal, and the two of us just didn't use enough energy to make it worth their while.

  4. This is a complete boondoggle! There are no known metals that will withstand the needed pressure at 700C.

  5. Meh.
    It's the desert.

    Those birds probably needed incinerating anyways.

  6. "They're calculating they could reach 50% efficiency."

    I assume that is thermal efficiency, remember that Earth based solar power only operates on an average of 50% of the time, so at best they are hoping for is a 25% overall efficiency, but that doesn't sound so good in press releases.

    Re Sodium: I actually have some experience handling liquid sodium in a test loop doing safety research on LMFBR (Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor) fuel design. High temperature sodium can be utilized safely and effectively, but it does require care, quality assurance and training. It also requires specializes materials (typically 304 stainless) as high temperature pure sodium will dissolve carbon out of ordinary steel. The problems are not unsolvable, but do add to the overall cost. I have no experience with the lead-bismuth alloy the russians have been using for their floating nuclear plants, but if you really want a solar power bird cooker, it might be worth investigating.

    One other point, the Ivanpah site is rated a 377 Megawatts and occupies 3,500 acres for an energy density of 108 Kilowatts per acre. So unless you get "free" federal land you have to add enormous land costs to the price tag.

    1. Thanks for the good summary and actual facts! If I understand what they're saying about comparing efficiency to photovoltaics, they have a way to save the heat energy in the molten (whatever) so that they effectively get energy out of it for more than half the 24 hour day.

      Shultz notes that if a plant has 12 or more hours of thermal energy storage capacity, then it can operate on the order of 70% of the time. But a PV without storage can only operate 20-25% of the time.

      They point out that PVs require batteries but their system doesn't. I guess that means they think they've got really superior insulation?

    2. Clearly, you've never been to Ivanpah.
      Nobody but the feds would pay for that land.
      Which is a feature, not a bug.

      If they were trying to install this in Central Park, or on South Florida beachfront, or the suburbs of Dallas, it would be a fair objection.

      When it's land so otherwise worthless even the BIA couldn't palm it off on an Indian tribe in years gone by, I think you're missing the point.

      Given the intrinsic value of the land, and it's location in terms of solar days, this is exactly where you put anything like this, and why land cost is close enough to nil as not to matter.

      WRT the actual plant, having been raised a short distance from the then-unpublicized North American Rockwell sodium nuclear reactor disaster, and the resultant cover-up and clean up, I'm thinking they'll basically just find a new way to discover the limits of material science. And if all they kill is birds and insects, and have the sense to do it out in BFE, that's a net improvement in basic intelligence for the species, however slight.

      Again, even though this is solar, not a nuke, you want people to be testing this sort of nonsense far, far away from populated areas.

      In most regards, Ivanpah would be a drawback.

      But in that regard, they are the ne plus ultra of people not wanting to be within 50 miles of a place.