Why is Israel building the world’s tallest solar tower?

Fig. 1: Something tall in Negev desert (Credit: Inhabitat)
The Ashalim solar project (Figure 1) in the Negev desert of Israel will reportedly power 130,000 homes when it is completed in 2018. This large-scale project boasts the world’s tallest solar tower -- at 250 meters (820 feet), it is regarded by many as a symbol of Israel’s ambition in renewable energy.

Solar thermal power and photovoltaic solar power are two main methods of generating electricity from the sun that are somewhat complementary to each other. Solar tower technology is an implementation of solar thermal power that uses thousands of mirrors to focus sunlight on the top of a tower, producing intense heat that vaporizes water to spin a turbine and generate electricity. The physics principle is the same as a solar cooker that you have probably made back in high school.

Why does the Ashalim solar tower have to be so tall?

Surrounding the tower are approximately 50,000 mirrors that all reflect sun beams to the top of the tower. For this many mirrors to "see" the tower, it has to be tall. This is easy to understand with the following metaphor: If you are speaking to a large, packed crowd in a square, you had better stand high so that the whole audience can see you. If there are children in the audience, you want to stand even higher so that they can see you as well. The adults in this analogy represent the upper parts of mirrors whereas the children the lower parts. If the lower parts cannot reflect sunlight to the tower, the efficiency of the mirrors will be halved.

Fig. 2: Visualizing the effect of tower height
An alternative solution for the children in the crowd to see the speaker is to have everyone stay further away from the speaker (assuming that they can hear well) -- this is just simple trigonometry. Larger distances among people, however, mean that the square with a fixed area can accommodate less people. In the case of the solar power tower, this means that the use of the land will not be efficient. And land, even in a desert, is precious in countries like Israel. This is why engineers chose to increase the height of tower and ended up constructing the costly tall tower as a trade-off for expensive land.

Fig. 3: Daily output graphs of towers of different heights
But how tall is tall enough?

Fig. 4: Energy output vs. tower height
This depends on a lot of things such as the mirror size and field layout. The analysis is complicated and reflects the nature of engineering. With our Energy3D software, however, complicated analyses such as this are made so easy that even high school students can do. Not only does Energy3D provide easy-to-use 3D graphical interfaces never seen in the design of concentrated solar power, but it also provides stunning "eye candy" visualizations that clearly spell out the science and engineering principles in design time. To illustrate my points, I set up a solar power tower, copied and pasted to create an array of mirrors, linked the heliostats with the tower, and copied and pasted again to create another tower and another array of mirrors with identical properties. None of these tasks require complicated scripts or things like that; all they take are just some mouse clicks and typing. Then, I made the height of the second tower twice as tall as the first one and run a simulation. A few seconds later, Energy3D showed me a nice visualization (Figure 2). With only a few more mouse clicks, I generated a graph that compares the daily outputs of towers of different heights (Figure 3) and collected a series of data that shows the relationship between the energy output and the tower height (Figure 4). The graph suggests that the gain from raising the tower slows down after certain height. Engineers will have to decide where to stop by considering other factors, such as cost, stability, etc.

Note that, the results of the solar power tower simulations in the current version of Energy3D, unlike their photovoltaic counterparts, can only be taken qualitatively. We are yet to build a heat transfer model that simulates the thermal storage and discharge accurately. This task is scheduled to be completed in the first half of this year. By that time, you will have a reliable prediction software tool for designing concentrated solar power plants.

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