Solar power plants use a variety of methods to collect sunlight and convert this energy into electricity, distill water or provide heat for industrial processes. Concentrating solar thermal power plants have traditionally been the most common type of solar power plant; however, multi-megawatt photovoltaic sites have seen recent rapid deployment.
Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. CST technologies require direct insolation to perform properly. This requirement makes them inappropriate for significantly overcast locations.
The three basic CST technologies are the solar trough, solar power tower and parabolic dish. Each technology is capable of producing high temperatures and correspondingly high thermodynamic efficiencies but they vary in the way they track the sun and focus light.
A solar trough consists of a linear parabolic reflector which concentrates light on a receiver positioned along the reflector's focal line. These systems use single-axis tracking to follow the sun. A working fluid (oil, water) flows through the receiver and is heated up to 400 °C before transferring its heat to a distillation or power generation system. Trough systems are the most developed CST technology. The Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS) plants in California and Plataforma Solar de Almerķa's SSPS-DCS plant in Spain are representatives of this technology.
A power tower consists of an array of flat reflectors (heliostats) which concentrate light on a central receiver located on a tower. These systems use dual-axis tracking to follow the sun. A working fluid (air, water, molten salt) flows through the receiver where it is heated up to 1000 °C before transferring its heat to a power generation or energy storage system. Power towers are less advanced than trough systems but they offer higher efficiency and energy storage capability. The Solar Two in Daggett, California and the Planta Solar 10 (PS10) in Sanlucar la Mayor, Spain are representatives of this technology.
A parabolic dish or dish/engine system consists of a stand-alone parabolic reflector which concentrates light on a receiver positioned at the reflector's focal point. These systems use dual-axis tracking to follow the sun. A working fluid (hydrogen, helium, air, water) flows through the receiver where it is heated up to 1500 °C before transferring its heat to a sterling engine for power generation. Parabolic dish systems display the highest solar-to-electric efficiency among CST technologies and their modular nature offers scalability. The Stirling Energy Systems (SES) and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) dishes at UNLV and the Big Dish in Canberra, Australia are representatives of this technology.
A solar updraft tower (also known as a solar chimney or solar tower) consists of a large greenhouse which funnels into a central tower. As sunlight shines on the greenhouse the air inside is heated and expands. The expanding air flows toward the central tower where a turbine converts the air flow into electricity. A 50 kW prototype was constructed in Ciudad Real, Spain and operated for eight years before decommissioning in 1989.