Industrial Revolutions

Solar: The future of energy?

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Solar: Will it power the planet?
Solar: Will it power the planet?

Since the dawn of civilisation, the sun has been relied upon to bring us light and warmth. Today, its energy is being harnessed to generate clean, limitless power that, along with other "renewable" sources, could eventually see us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

At the end of March, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the imminent dangers of climate change. "We live in an era of man-made climate change," Vicente Barros, who co-chaired the report, told journalists at the report's launch.

"In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face. Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future," Barros added.

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In the arid Mojave Desert, California, temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is here that Ivanpah, the world's largest solar power thermal system, is breaking new ground when it comes to solar energy.

Situated on a 3,500 acre site and with more than 300,000 mirrors, Ivanpah is built on a staggering scale.

Costing $2.2 billion to build and owned by Google, NRG Energy and BrightSource Energy, Ivanpah generates enough energy to power 140,000 Californian homes. It will also reduce CO2 emissions by 400,000 tons a year.

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Three "power towers" – developed by BrightSource Energy – dominate the site, standing over 450 feet tall and topped by huge boilers. These boilers generate 'superheated steam' when Ivanpah's solar mirrors reflect sunlight onto their pipes. It is this steam that is funneled to a turbine, generating electricity.

"I believe Ivanpah is destined to be the most iconic solar power plant in probably the whole world," Randall Hickok, Senior Vice President, NRG Solar, told Episode 4 of CNBC's Industrial Revolutions.

"If you're land-constrained, the power tower design is a great way to try to get more megawatts out of a limited amount of land," he added.

As well as generating electricity during daylight hours, Ivanpah is capable of generating power when the sun sets, too. "Concentrated solar power is very stable… with concentrated solar you can store that energy in liquefied salts and use that latent heat to generate steam after the sun has gone down and get several more hours of production, which adds a lot of value," Hickok said.

While the plant has earned plaudits for its sheer ambition and clean electricity, there have been reports of birds flying in and around Ivanpah being burnt by the heat generated by its mirrors and towers.

"We are in the first year of operation and it was always anticipated that there would be some avian impact and this first year is all about monitoring what those impacts are," Hickok told CNBC.

Ethan Miller | Getty Images

"There are a number of things that we believe we can do to diminish avian mortality, from changing the way that we angle the mirrors at the top of the towers... so that birds aren't flying right through a zone of super heated air, to imitating calls of predators whenever we sense that birds are within the area," he added.

On the other side of the United States, in Maryland, New Energy Technologies have been developing another aspect of solar technology that could, in the future, complement vast installations such as Ivanpah.

Their SolarWindow coating is described by the company as a 'first of its kind' technology that could turn the buildings we live and work in into self-sufficient, mini power stations.

The company has been developing an ultra-thin spray-on coating that can generate clean, renewable electricity when applied to windows and transparent plastic.

A succession of thin layers, including a clear coating that enables windows to safely carry electricity and a semi transparent layer of chemicals that absorb light and create electricity, are applied to glass. The electricity generated is then used to help power the building and appliances.

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"The company aspires to utilise the technology in commercial buildings and residential homes throughout the world," John Conklin, CEO of New Energy Technologies, told in a phone interview.

"Our current focus is on the commercial building industry because the market potential is so substantial – it gives us a great point of entry," Conklin added.

Just like Ivanpah, SolarWindow can generate electricity after hours. "The coating has been developed to work under artificial light as well," Conklin said.

"We can look at the entire building as an envelope of power generation, because it's not just an exterior application. We can bring it inside, and utilize LEDs, utilize fluorescent and… incandescent lights to produce electricity from the inside of the building," he added.

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