As part of the country’s ongoing bid to invest in renewable energy, China’s state-run utility this week inked a deal with Oakland-based BrightSource Energy to build a massive new solar mirror farm. The technology, which uses thousands of mirrors to concentrate sunlight and heat water to power a steam turbine, is the same design used in BrightSource’s Ivanpah power plant outside of Las Vegas.
The main advantage of thermal solar plants over traditional solar panel arrays is that they’re able to generate far more power that photovoltaic panels. These power plants can be massive, producing hundreds of megawatts of energy – an advantage that makes them competitive with coal-burning plants in a way that many renewable plants aren’t yet. The Ivanpah plant produces a whopping 392 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 California homes. Another mirror farm under construction in Morroco, slated to the be world’s largest when complete, will generate 580 megawatts and serve 1.1 million people.
This deal certainly won’t be the last of its kind for the Chinese government. Right now, BrightSource Energy is committed to a 135-megawatt pilot project in China’s northwest Qinghai province. It’s also going to include energy storage in the form of molten salt tanks, which are able to retain heat and produce power even after the sun has gone down. Another American company, SolarReserve, is also in the process of building a mirror farm in China.
If it seems strange that these American companies are focusing on exporting their expertise abroad, it’s because the US has been slow to adopt the technology. Apart from a few high-profile projects like Ivanpah, thermal solar farms haven’t really taken off. That’s due in large part to a drop in costs for traditional solar panels and natural gas. Hopefully, as thermal solar plants gain acceptance in China and the rest of the world, they’ll see a resurgence in the US as well.
Images via BrightSource Energy