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February 15, 2008



The system does appear to be designed to maximize efficiency, with cost being compromised.

Greg Woulf

What cost are you referring to?

The Sandia unit is just the prototype, so what you see doesn't necessarily follow, either the cost portion or the efficiency.

I think this is one of the good technologies. Better than turbines, better than PV. It doesn't seem like it has very many moving parts and none of them see very rare or expensive to manufacture.

Not being familiar with Stirling engines and this system I'm not at all sure how durable it is, or how costly it would be to manufacture.


I'm sure this is just a stock photo, but wouldn't those dishes work better if they were pointed toward the sun?


The efficiency record is new, but the concept and the development plans have been chugging along for 2+ years now. A lot of people in high places have "bought in" to this technology; Southern Cal Edison and San Diego G & E signed their contracts in 2005. It boggles the mind to contemplate what they are going to do. SCE's initial contract calls for 20,000 of these dishes to produce 500 MW. 20,000? Yikes.

I wonder who will produce all those mirrors?

And I wonder what rate the electric companies have agreed to pay for the output?


Uhm actually, it's been in development with SES for over 20 years.

They've just been making noise about it in the last 3.


I have trouble seeing this tech becoming cheap enough. These dishes look pretty heavy, and they gotta stand up to the weather for decades if they are to be a viable power tech. I thought I saw these babies on TV, they claimed $6 peak watt, and maybe potential to reach $3/watt. Steerable versus a fixed
S facing PV effciency should be roughly 50% better, but that means that a $3/watt concentrating steerable would compare to a $2/watt PV panel. The figure of merit being put out by startups with new wizzbang technology is $1/watt. CoolEarthSolar (Mylar ballon based CPV) claims they can do $.29/watt (although I suspect their system won't work in the wind).

I'd like to see real cost figures. Clearly these utilities seem to have gone for these in a big way. I can't imagine they wouldn't do due diligence for such a large scale project.

retro tech

A great achievement. This took 24 years to beat. Manhattan project took 3-4 years.


==A great achievement. This took 24 years to beat. Manhattan project took 3-4 years.==

And a generous portion of the US GDP.


BigTom wrote: I'd like to see real cost figures.

If we figure a December average production-density of 1 watt per square meter (10 square feet), and a land cost of $40,000/acre (~40,000 square feet), the land cost alone for December power would be $10/watt.

By the way, how would one store the electrical-energy produced?

John Flagge

"I have trouble seeing this tech becoming cheap enough. These dishes look pretty heavy, and they gotta stand up to the weather for decades if they are to be a viable power tech."

I would think robust structures would pay back after a few decades. I would imaging the mirrors are replaceable, or will be, and the next generation of them will almost certainly last even longer. Why, then could not a plant of this type have a lifespan of 5 decades like a conventional plant. With no fuel costs, and little maintainence per decade, I would have to think that is where these firms think these could pay out.


It is certainly difficult to get one's mind (and calculator) around the magnitude of this project. If the first phase of SCE's project (500 MW, 20,000 dishes, 4 years of construction) is going to happen, it means that 100 of these babies must be built, transported, and erected PER WEEK for four years! A massive capital project, wouldn't you say? How many man-hours will be expended in that? How could the actual cost be anything close to a rational number?


Two problems with your analysis, (1) These utilities are primarily interested in peak power, i.e. the hottest part of the day during the hottest part of the year. (2) For a tracker (or an overhead system such as the CoolEarthSolar) the solar component can intercept lowangle solar radiation (it shades a considerable amount of land). If the land was only used for solar the whole land cost would count, but if the area between units (or under them for the other system), can be used for another purpose the land cost is reduced.

Again, nobody is seriously proposing these things for baseload generation, I'd prefer a healthy Nuclear component for that. The real issue for the next decade or two, is can these sorts of solutions make sense for daytime power?

John Flagge:
For reasonable interest rates (discount rates actually) infinite lifetime needs a payback period of roughly 10-13 years. Lifetimes much larger than this will have little effect on the "present value" of the system. If these things are to make financial sense, the capital costs have to be kept relatively small.

I wonder if the contracts actually specify the purchase of that much capability? I wouldn't be surprised if these were maximum amounts subject to contingencies (such as cosp/performance of early systems etc). If a cheaper technology came along, midbuildup, I suspect the utilities could back out (perhaps with payment of a penalty).


BigTom wrote: These utilities are primarily interested in peak power [...] the hottest part of the day during the hottest part of the year.

If that were the case, they could save themselves money by investing in diesel peakers.


California utilities have to meet a 20% renewables target by 2020. Diesel peakers wouldn't qualify. And the rules are a bit bizarre, the older largescale hydro doesn't count. I'm in the PG&E service area, PG&E has something like 49%gas, 2% coal, and 26% nuclear. Most of the remainder is hydro, but only recent small hydro counts, they are struggling towards their 20% share.

Kit P

"California utilities have to meet a 20% renewables target by 2020."

This is not true. Like with EVs, California can declare vicitory and change he law.

Many of the windfarms in the PNW are contracted to Cal. If conservation works in Cal to avoid building new nukes and coal plants, that same theory should apply to all new plants.


I notice that Sandia is about 5,000 feet above sea level. How much difference does that make for solar power generally?


Top of the atmosphere solar constant is roughly 1350watts/meter**2, the typical value that is used for the surface is 1000watts. The atmospheric scale height roughly 8km. Assuming the atmosphere is exponential at 8KM depth 5000 feet would still have
82% of the atmosphere above it. Of course many atmospheric scatterers are more concentrated lower down, so you might recover 20-25% of the lost solar, so that would give us pergaps 1080watts/meter**2.

Trying to go higher up in New Mexico and the sunshine gets stronger, but the cloudiness goes up. It probably pays to put generation at lower sunnier elevation.

Kit P

If you go back and read carefully the PR, you will see that the record was achieved on a very cold day. This is great if your solar system is designed to match winter peak. Say 4 am.

I always find it very interesting the information the solar industry (including DOE researchers) does not tell you. It sure looks like the solar industry likes to brag about the wrong things.


I have been out of the country for a month. Nice to see you are still spreading your positive message there Kit. Your statement about temperature and solar is at best misleading. I would have thought as an ex power plant operator you would have mentioned that all power plants, that rely on cooling, are more efficient on cooler days. Pretty much any power plant, including your beloved coal, is going to wait until a cool day to test it’s efficiency.

In the end I don’t think efficiency is that important. What is important is the cost to build and operate these systems and the amount of electricity they produce. I live in the area they are supposed to build these systems and I have some real doubts that is will ever happen. They announced that they were going to build them but have never announced just where they are going to do it. They have also never filed with California to build them. Something they were supposed to do about 2 years ago. That Edison and San Diego have signed a contract with them does not mean much to me. Basically these contracts are signed all time for various power projects and they are far from guaranteeing they project will ever get built. Basically all they say is they will buy the power if you can you can do everything you claim but there are so many ways out of the contract that they rarely ever get built. This is the same for both conventional and renewable plants.


Steve: A nice summary of the issue, and a spot-on prediction of the likely outcome of this project.

One thing we may be missing in all this is the possibility that SES has developed a promising stirling engine that could be used in other applications. Stirlings and solar power would seem to be a match made in heaven, especially for driving a pump that can lift water to a tower, thus allowing 24/7 production of electricity. This is already being done in remote areas where electricity is not available.

How about it, SES? Show us your stirling?

Thomas Marihart

I'd like to see how reliable the Stirling engines are now and how much/often do they need service. Poor STM didn't make it...these guys, as far as I know, are the last potential residential/farm/commercial scale stirling building block left in the US.

Their smallest unit is 25KW for ~$150K now (est) going to ~$2W or ~$50K as mentioned on invention nation recently.

I'd like to put one of these at my Dad's ranch, and we could likely service the thing on site, it seems, like one would service a regular pump engine.

I also like that the unit needs ~700 Deg C heat to run the Stirling at a nominal ~25kw, which is also the stack exhaust temperature of a certain biomass gasification system I work with...

If SES can publish their thermal mass flow vs. temp curves, that would be really helpful for others who want to interface other sources of energy (waste heat) to their product, thereby enhancing its value beyond just solar. Having a couple of engine units available for Biomass development projects would be nice too.


Same as Danzig. Thanks for nice summary. Sounds like an industry insider view. I'm not one. Loved the comment on efficiency. What heresy. ;-) Many seem to forget efficiency is just one factor in overall system cost per kWh produced including installation.(Balance of System, BOS) There's a good reason why CIS, CIGS, and CdTe are selling so well at half the efficiency of Si.
I've been wondering what happened to the SES developments and don't understand PPAs well. Thanks again.

it means that 100 of these babies must be built, transported, and erected PER WEEK for four years!
Same steps, over and over.  Lends itself to very specialized jigs and other assistance.

These dishes are about the weight of a medium-duty truck.  Detroit could crank them out at the pace of 100 an hour.


Engineer-Poet I agree with you that once production has started putting up this many dishes would not be a problem at all. It will take quite a lot of start up money to do so though. The problem with this is that most of these companies need outside funding which can be hard to get for a new and relatively unproven technology. My guess is if they actually build them they will start in smaller numbers and build them at a less aggressive pace than they have announced.

Yes mds I am in the industry but I don’t know much about the Sterling Dishes other than what I have read. It does seem like interesting technology but there is a big difference between a few hand built and maintained units, and having to deal with thousands of mass produced units in the field. I know the company I work for looked into them and I know a couple of people who were involved with it. My gut feeling is they may not be ready for prime quite yet and they are underestimating the amount of maintenance these units will require. The plus side is they will require less water than other forms of commercial solar but not the basically zero they first claimed. Another plus is they are small units that might work will, at high efficiency , in remote areas, as Thomas pointed out.

Kit P

Steve wrote,

“They announced that they were going to build them but have never announced just where they are going to do it. They have also never filed with California to build them. Something they were supposed to do about 2 years ago.”

Are you saying they have not started the environmental impact statement (EIS) process?


Hmm somehow Kit when I see you ask about an EIS, when I never mentioned one, I see it as less of a question and more of an attempt to make an attack, but on the remote chance it is a legitimate question I will give my opinion. The simple answer is I have no idea. I would assume that they are doing some work and am not sure about the environmental impact. The filing with the State of California I was talking about was the California Energy Commission. You can go to their website and see all the power plants in the State that are running, being built or proposed. As of yet the project has not filed. Now I know of at least one other solar project right now that has some preliminary work being done that has not filed or been announced, so this may be the same for the Sterling Dishes.

About two years ago, I believe, the local newspaper here had a large front page story on the Sterling Dishes they were supposed to build around 1000 MW’s worth right out of town. They were supposed to be building them by now but said they had not decided just exactly where they were going to do it and were studying three sites I believe. About a year before they start building them they are going to have to file with the California Energy Commission, so I would guess it would be at least 2009 before they could even get started. To be fair power projects, of all types, rarely get started when they announce them. It is just that they have never announced just where they are going to build them and some conversations I have had that make me doubt they are that close to going ahead. I would like to see them build at least part of it so we can see how well it will work in the field.

Kit P

Siting a any large power project requires many many long and expensive regulatory processes which include public hearings. Only the serious need apply.

John Spinuzzi

I have been watching people experiment with this type of generator since 1975. Actually, Stirling and Rankin engines mounted on solar concentrators were first tried out in the late 1800's, if I am not mistaken! The idea is old, but ways to make it work well (and funding to make it happen!) are more recent.


I love solar power I think over the next few years it's going to be exploding even more... as performance of solar panels goes up people are going to be adopting it everywhere they can... after all it's free energy :)

Some things I'm looking forward to are more effiecient solar panels, about 5 years from now when I buy my house I want to make sure I can power the entire house and my plugin hybrid all on solar power... I'm also hoping that solar paint will finally be in customers hands... having your entire house generate so much electricity and maybe even being able to sell it back to the grid would be amazing...

BTW here is more great Solar Power information, there is quite a few amazing new solar projects being done right now... it's really great to see so much focus on alternative energy.



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The conversion efficiency is calculated by measuring the net energy delivered to the grid and dividing it by the solar energy hitting the dish mirrors.The Stirling dishes are made with a low iron glass with a silver backing that make them highly reflective —focusing as much as 94 percent of the incident sunlight to the engine package, where prior efforts reflected about 91 percent.


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Great post as usual. Thank you.

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Again a very nice easy read on the energy blog. Nice.

Daryl @ solar energy Sarasota

Solar technology is amazing. It's hard to comprehend the efficiency being reached here with this solar panels but it's just going to get better and better each year that passes.

Solar hot water heater

New solar world record for efficiency

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Solar panel can easily become the important energy source in the future as the energy and heat is natural and we just need to set up a solar panel and no extra expense is required.


great post - i do love the idea of solar energy especiilay solar panels, however the only problem with the model you were talking about is the start up cost

marmaris otelleri

these are very expensive systmes should be..amazing..

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yes maybe can be expensive but there is one point that this systems for humans future..

solar water heater

Solar hot water panels can be highly efficient, converting about 80 per-cent of the energy that hits them in to heat. Even on a cloudy day, they will produce some hot water, in the event that they are oriented south or southwest to take maximum advantage of the sun's rays.

parking sensors

Ahh, makes sense that the weather played a factor in the test, but it's still good they were able to accomplish this!

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Congratulations to Sandia for setting this record!

Rug Cleaning Los Angeles

That's crazy that the last record was set in 1984 and it's taken this long to break it. Good job, though.

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