New MIT Technology Improves the Economics of Solar

November 30, 2011

The future is bright for solar power (pun intended). Solar-powered devices are popping up all over the place, from solar-powered parking spots, to solar-powered smartphone chargers. We seem to be breaking the proverbial code of solar power, finding ways to implement it in even the most unlikely of places.

But one area where we are still lacking is full-scale solar arrays to power homes and businesses. The main reasons for this have been lacking storage solutions—but decent options are finally coming to the foray—and the expense of the technology.

However, as technology has advanced, solar power has continued to become more economical. Non-renewable energy is getting much more expensive to produce, both literally and politically. There are a lot of new environmental standards that have been put in place to help mitigate some of the dirty issues associated with non-renewable energy, but these are often expensive solutions to employ.

Politically, building so-called dirty power plants is becoming a lot less popular. With all we are learning about global climate change and pollution, there is a backlash toward non-renewable, dirty energy from the public. All this means that getting a new dirty power plant from design to use is not an easy feat.

Some new research coming out of MIT, the veritable technological university, might help to improve the economies of solar even further, making it a much more affordable and thus more attractive solution. The bright minds of this institution have created a plan in which to help overcome one of the biggest challenges facing solar power; you only get power when the sun is shining. But thanks to the work by the MIT researchers, that problem may be a thing of the past as solar power is provided 24/7.

The basic idea is to use the power of the sun when it is shinning to heat a substance like molten salt. This in turn heats water that turns a generating turbine.  This system is already in use but is limited in that it is both expensive and only works when the sun is out. But the MIT team, using existing technology, has developed an inexpensive system that would work even on cloudy days. An installation would provide 20 megawatts of electricity 24/7 – enough to supply 10,000 homes with clean and efficient renewable energy.

The economics of solar power are getting better with each passing year. For many years, alternative energy enthusiasts have been hoping for the day in which we would reach “grid parity.” This describes an economic structure in which alternative energies such as solar power are priced comparably to traditional polluting energy sources. With the work from institutions such as MIT, efficiency is increasing, and the costs are coming down to reasonable levels. Keeping this pace, grid parity is likely to be a thing of the near future.

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