State-of-the-Art Solar Collectors For Clean Energy
Luz system in Mojave Desert boasts world's most advanced solar-thermal technology. LIGHT POWER
KRAMER JUNCTION, CALIF.
HUNDREDS of rows of troughlike parabolic mirrors glint sharply beneath the scalding desert sun. Tracking the golden orb across a cobalt sky with the aid of computers, the mirrors focus their rays upon a vacuum-sealed tube of synthetic oil. The oil - once braised to a bubbly 735 degrees F - is pumped into a water-filled steam compressor that turns the water to steam and turns an electric turbine. Down the road a spit, in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, the generated electricity powers microwaves, lights, air conditioners. The nearly 200 megawatts generated can meet the residential needs of about 270,000 people. A planned billion-dollar-plus expansion here by 1994 will triple that output to meet the residential electrical needs of a city the size of Washington.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Here at Kramer Junction, the largest solar-powered facility ever built generates an estimated 90 percent of the world's electricity drawn from the sun. Welcome to the present and future of solar power in both the United States and the world. According to the Solar Energies Industry Association, this 1,000-acre facility is the most advanced worldwide effort to bring solar energy into large-scale production.
The solar-thermal technology represented by these rows of mirrors is one of three forms of solar energy production now used: the solar panel, which is mostly used to heat water above or near a house; photovoltaic cells that use silicon wafers to generate electricity on contact - and are also used in watches and calculators; and the Luz technology here.
``What needs to be learned [about this facility] is that this project is not a fluke but the beginning of a major trend,'' says Scott Sklar, executive director of SEIA, a trade group. ``The US will begin seeing these plants multiplying in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and California.''
``Luz has been the firm that has taken the state-of-the-art technology, pushed it, applied it, taken corporate risks,'' adds Robert San Martin, deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy at the Department of Energy. ``It is very clear that this is the cutting edge.''
Spurred by anxiety over acid rain and global warming caused in part by burning fossil fuels to produce electric power, at least four major bills are working their way through Congress with measures aimed at harnessing the sun's cleaner energy. Among them, the National Energy Policy Act of 1989 calls for relaxation of current restrictions on the size of solar plants and significant sums for research and development. The bill has 30 cosponsors and broad bipartisan support.
``It's time to look once again at renewable, nonpolluting sources of energy,'' says Sen. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado, whose Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held congressional hearings in Los Angeles last month on both the greenhouse effect and the problems of smog in the Los Angeles Basin. To attract attention back to solar, Mr. Wirth trotted out some Hollywood celebrities - Dennis Weaver, Morgan Fairchild, and others - to the Luz site for a live press conference for radio and television stations across the West.
``We've got to keep pushing it ... to alert the country that real alternatives do exist,'' he said.
Low oil prices over the last eight years have meant reduced incentive to develop alternative energy. Department of Energy funding for research and development has dropped from 800 million in 1980 to this year's budget request of $81 million, well behind both West Germany and Japan. Research specifically designated for photovoltaics has dropped from $150 million in 1981 to $35 million this year.