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Solar tower - Power plant
Solar tower - Power plant. In solar power stations, mirrors are used to concentrate sunlight and convert it into thermal energy). This process enables temperatures of more than 1000 degrees Celsius to be achieved, which can be used to generate electricity, among other things.

Solar power towers generate electric power from sunlight by focusing concentrated solar radiation on a tower mounted heat exchanger (receiver). The system uses hundreds to thousands of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats to reflect the incident sunlight onto the receiver. These plants are best suited for utility-scale applications in the 30 to 400 MWe range. In a molten-salt solar power tower, liquid salt at 290ºC (554ºF) is pumped from a ‘cold’ storage tank through the receiver where it is heated to 565ºC (1,049ºF) and then on to a ‘hot’ tank for storage.

When power is needed from the plant, hot salt is pumped to a steam generating system that produces superheated steam for a conventional Rankinecycle turbine/generator system. From the steam generator, the salt is returned to the cold tank where it is stored and eventually reheated in the receiver.

Figure 1 is a schematic diagram of the primary flow paths in a molten-salt solar power plant.

Determining the optimum storage size to meet power-dispatch requirements is an important part of the system design process. Storage tanks can be designed with sufficient capacity to power a turbine at full output for up to 13 hours.

Solar tower configuration

Figure 1. Molten-salt power tower system schematic (Solar Two, baseline configuration).
Figure 1. Molten-salt power tower system schematic (Solar Two, baseline configuration).

The heliostat field that surrounds the tower is laid out to optimize the annual performance of the plant. The field and the receiver are also sized depending on the needs of the utility. In a typical installation, solar energy collection occurs at a rate that exceeds the maximum required to provide steam to the turbine.

Consequently, the thermal storage system can be charged at the same time that the plant is producing power at full capacity. The ratio of the thermal power provided by the collector system (the heliostat field and receiver) to the peak thermal power required by the turbine generator is called the solar multiple.

With a solar multiple of approximately 2.7, a molten-salt power tower located in the California Mojave desert can be designed for an annual capacity factor of about 65%. (Based on simulations at Sandia National Laboratories with the SOLERGY [1] computer code.) Consequently, a power tower could potentially operate for 65% of the year without the need for a back-up fuel source. Without energy storage, solar technologies are limited to annual capacity factors near 25%.

The dispatchability of electricity from a molten-salt power tower is illustrated in Figure 2, which shows the loaddispatching capability for a typical day in Southern California. The figure shows solar intensity, energy stored in the hot tank, and electric power output as functions of time of day. In this example, the solar plant begins collecting thermal energy soon after sunrise and stores it in the hot tank, accumulating energy in the tank throughout the day. In response to a peak-load demand on the grid, the turbine is brought on line at 1:00 PM and continues to generate power until 11 PM.

Figure 2. Dispatchability of molten-salt power towers
Figure 2. Dispatchability of molten-salt power towers

Because of the storage, power output from the turbine generator remains constant through fluctuations in solar intensity and until all of the energy stored in the hot tank is depleted. Energy storage and dispatchability are very important for the success of solar power tower technology, and molten salt is believed to be the key to cost effective energy storage.

Power towers must be large to be economical. Power tower plants are not modular and can not be built in the smaller sizes of dish/Stirling or trough-electric plants and be economically competitive, but they do use a conventional power block and can easily dispatch power when storage is available.

In the United States, the Southwest is ideal for power towers because of its abundant high levels of insolation and relatively low land costs. Similar locations in northern Africa, Mexico, South America, the Middle East, and India are also well-suited for power towers.

System Benefits -Energy Storage

The availability of an inexpensive and efficient energy storage system may give power towers a competitive advantage.

Table 2 provides a comparison of the predicted cost, performance, and lifetime of solar-energy storage technologies for hypothetical 200 MW plants [5,6].

Installed cost of energy storage for a 200 MW plant

Lifetime of storage system

Round-trip storage efficiency
Maximum operating temperature
Molten-Salt Power Tower303099567/1,053
Synthetic-Oil Parabolic Trough2003095390/734
Battery Storage Grid Connected500 to 8005 to 1076N/A

Thermal-energy storage in the power tower allows electricity to be dispatched to the grid when demand for power is the highest, thus increasing the monetary value of the electricity. Much like hydro plants, power towers with salt storage are considered to be a dispatchable rather than an intermittent renewable energy power plant.

For example, Southern California Edison company gives a power plant a capacity payment if it is able to meet their dispatchability requirement: an 80% capacity factor from noon to 6 PM, Monday through Friday, from June through September.

Detailed studies have indicated that a solar-only plant with 4 hours of thermal storage can meet this dispatchability requirement and thus qualify for a full capacity payment.

While the future deregulated market place may recognize this value differently, energy delivered during peak periods will certainly be more valuable.

Besides making the power dispatchable, thermal storage also gives the power-plant designer freedom to develop power plants with a wide range of capacity factors to meet the needs of the utility grid. By varying the size of the solar field, solar receiver, and size of the thermal storage, plants can be designed with annual capacity factors ranging between 20 and 65% (see Figure 6).

Economic studies have shown that levelized energy costs are reduced by adding more storage up to a limit of about 13 hours (~65% capacity factor). While it is true that storage increases the cost of the plant, it is also true that plants with higher capacity factors have better economic utilization of the turbine, and other balance of plant equipment.

Since salt storage is inexpensive, reductions in LEC due to increased utilization of the turbine more than compensates for the increased cost due to the addition of storage.

Figure 6. In a solar power tower, plant design can be altered to achieve different capacity factors.
Figure 6. In a solar power tower, plant design can be altered to achieve different capacity factors.

To increase capacity factor for a given turbine size, the designer would (1) increase the number of heliostats, (2) enlarge the thermal storage tanks, (3) raise the tower, and (4) increase the receiver dimensions.

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Edvard Csanyi

Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry facilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming.


  1. Chandrakant Sutar
    Oct 25, 2015

    What will be the percentage of energy required to run the plant commpared to generated energy on daily cycle basis in the example explored in your topic.

  2. Jemimah
    Feb 15, 2013

    From the figures its clear this means of storage and power source is a better option than the typical battery PV system. I wonder though what the maintenance costs would be, at high temperatures don’t the storage and pipe systems ware out easily? Also the addition of a moving part ( generator) i think would increase this cost. ln terms of the entire system efficiency would you say this system competes with the traditional PV system?

  3. Edvard
    Dec 17, 2010

    It’s a powerful electricity generator! It uses powerful rays of bright sunlight to focus pure raw energy to solar panels. Great!

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