Powerful type of solar power being tested at Sandia National Labs


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a first of its kind, 3-D printed technology that makes solar power more powerful.

“What separates Sandia’s research is that we have this one-of-a-kind facility. This is the only ‘power tower’ research facility in the country and there’s only a handful in the world,” said Cliff Ho, a mechanical engineer at Sandia National Labs.

Research and testing at the National Solar Thermal Testing Facility focuses on “concentrating solar power,” which uses a large field of mirrors to generate 20 percent more power than traditional solar power.

“We use lots and lots of mirrors to generate heat and that heat can be stored for use at night or when it’s cloudy, unlike photovoltaics (traditional solar panels) which only produce energy when the sun is shining,” said Ho.

The ability to store energy without the need for expensive batteries is what sets this technology apart from traditional solar power. Ho says in some cases, traditional solar power generates more power than people can use in the middle of the day. Ho says over-generating leads to a waste of electricity.

“If we’re wasting energy, or having to pay people to take it, it’s going to increase the overall price,” said Ho.

Ho says coal is still the cheapest way to produce power. However, in the long run, concentrating solar power will be cheaper than traditional solar power.

“If we go with concentrating solar power, I think in the long run it will be cheaper than if we go with something like photovoltaics and batteries,” said Ho.

This is not the type of technology that you will ever see on peoples roofs.

“This is for large, utility-scale distribution. A plant like this or typical plants that are 50-100 megawatts can supply energy for tens of thousands of homes,” said Ho.

However, it is the type of clean technology that is being sought by PNM as a replacement for coal-burning units they’ll soon shut down at the San Juan Generating Station.

“PNM currently has an active RFP (request for proposal) out right now asking for San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) Replacement Alternatives. Concentrating solar at the San Juan Generating Station is a good example of the types of proposals PNM expects to receive. It is also a technology that was looked at when we filed the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission,” said PNM spokesperson Shannon Jackson.

Jackson says concentrating solar power “may not be as cost-effective as other potential alternatives.” Jackson says PNM will “carefully consider any data” provided as they continue their work toward “integrating cleaner resources into the energy grid.”

Regardless, research and testing will continue at Sandia National Labs.

This research is part of a five-year project that aims to “develop and improve cost-effective solar technology” for the United States and India.

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