Did you ever expect to find cutting-edge renewable energy technology in your grammar school lunch box? Right there, next to your PB&J and a slightly bruised apple most likely sat a thermos bottle of milk or soup. That bottle worked on the same basic principle as solar thermal technology, the most practical renewable energy source for regions without the right weather to support today’s marquee renewables – wind power and solar photovoltaic. Which would be much of the continental U.S.
Unlike photovoltaic and wind systems, solar thermal systems can store energy for use at night or on cloudy, windless days. Photo thermal systems are like huge thermos bottles that use sunlight to super-heat highly concentrated salt solutions. Insulated “bottles” trap the heat. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, the trapped heat can generate steam to produce electricity or heat water to warm homes and businesses. Spain is starting work on a large-scale solar thermal plant for its Seville province in 2010.
Regions like New England, the Mid Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest could go Spain one better by combining solar thermal, wind and photovoltaic in one super-renewable energy system. We here in New England get wind, but not the steady, predicable wind that makes the Great Plains states ideal for wind power. We get sun, but not enough for large-scale solar, like the Southwest. So here’s an idea for the renewable-poor states. Build wind turbine farms for when the wind blows. Build photovoltaic arrays for when the sun shines. But don’t hook them up directly to the grid, use them to generate and store heat in solar thermal systems to match energy production with energy demand. What do you think? Practical, or a crackpot idea?