Monday, June 4, 2007

Big Solar's day in the sun

This is not the same old pipe dream. The economics -- and the technology -- of turning light into electricity have changed. Business 2.0 has the inside look at the industrial-strength power plants coming soon to a grid near you.

By Todd Woody, Business 2.0 Magazine assistant managing editor

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Clouds hang low over the New Mexico desert, deep inside a military reservation a dozen miles south of Albuquerque. A breeze stirs the air; tumbleweeds roll by. Then the sun shines through and a low whirring sound breaks the silence.

Six mirrored solar dishes that look like giant flowers with 15-foot stamens come to life. They pivot in unison, slowly tilting to face the sun rising over the jagged peaks of the Manzano ranges. A total of 468 mirrors -- 78 on each flower --capture the sun's rays and concentrate them into beams of light intense enough to melt lead.

At each flower's focal point, suspended on metal struts, is a Stirling engine -- a heavy, piston-driven heat engine whose design dates from the Steam Age but is now coming into its own, thanks to the grim calculus of rising oil prices, global warming, and the threat of government-imposed carbon taxes. As the tips of the engines glow white-hot, 150 kilowatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity flows into a power grid.

Welcome to the proving grounds of Sandia National Laboratories, a nine-acre field of dreams for solar entrepreneurs and a launching pad for the next era in energy technology: the age of Big Solar


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