Answer For The Future Is In Hybrid Marriage-Solar And Fossil Fuel

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Truly, we should all think positively about the alternative future, for human imagination is boundless.  We need to look no further than the state of Florida, where the first hybrid natural gas solar power plant and the world’s second-largest solar plant ( after the 310-megawatt Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert in CA, also owned by FPL, built in 1980s) just opened this year.  One of the nation’s biggest utilities, FPL (Florida Power & Light) Company, is running an experiment in the future of renewable power.  The Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center is a hybrid 75-megawatt (MW) (enough to sustain 11,000 homes) parabolic trough solar energy plant

Example of Solar Troughs Farm

, located on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee (just north of Indiantown, FL), is built by FPL.  The solar plant is a component of the 3,705 MW Martin County Power Plant, which is the single largest fossil fuel burning power plant in the United States.   The Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center has an array of about 190,000-mirror parabolic troughs on approximately 5oo acres of the Martin County Plant.

 

These solar collectors (with parabolic mirrors) track the sun throughout the day,  capturing as much solar energy as possible and then converting  solar energy into electrical energy and  feed heat to the existing steam plant, generating electricity at a rate of 155,000 MW-h per year (average of 18 MW).  This is the first natural gas building to be retrofitted with solar thermal capabilities in such an industrial scale.  The real novelty of this project lies in the fact that the solar array is being grafted onto the back of the nation’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, fired by natural gas.  It is an experiment in whether conventional power generation can be married with renewable power so to lower the costs and  spare the environment.  In addition to reducing the consumption of natural gas and carbon dioxide emissions, this marriage will also serve as a real-life test on how to reduce the cost of solar power (compared with a stand-alone solar facility) by not having to build a new steam turbine or new high-power transmission lines. The construction of the plant began in 2008 and was completed by the end of 2010.  FPL expects the $476  million solar plant to reduce the combined-cycle power plant’s natural gas consumption by 1.3  billion cubic feet (37 billion cubic meter )per year. Over the 30-year life of the project, this is expected to save $178 million in fuel cost (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Jan. 28, 2011, Julie Patel) and reduce carbon emissions by 2.75 million tons (The New York Times, Mar. 4, 2010, Jad Mouawad).

Mark Brownstein, an energy and grid specialist at the Environmental Defense Fund, praised FPL’s innovative thinking. “When we talk about getting to a low-carbon, clean-energy economy,” he said, “we know there is not going to be a single technology that is going to transform the industry.”  Currently, 29 states require utilities to increase the amount of power produced from renewable energy, which includes solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass. Last year, Congress considered a federal mandate for 25 percent of renewable power by 2025 as part of its energy and climate legislation. (The bill has since stalled.)  While the use of renewable energy is growing, its share of world’s energy use/electrical generation remains small (recall World Energy Usage Chart from the Sun Is The Future post on April 3, 2011,

World Energy Usage Chart (Sun Is The Future, April 3, 2011)

).  Part of the challenge in increasing the share of renewable energy sources is to make up for their variable nature (such as at night, no sun, or when the wind does not blow).  Because electricity cannot be stored easily and utilities must always produce enough power to meet electric demand at any time,  hybrid plants could provide part of the answer.  Adding renewable power to existing fossil fuel plants that operate around the clock, utilities could have readily available power that could be fired up whenever the wind or solar resource drops off.  As long as we remain hopeful and creative, we earthlings will be able to face any challenge that lies ahead in our path toward  renewable and solar energy future.

Posted by sunisthefuture-Susan Sun Nunamaker, sunisthefuture@gmail.com

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