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Tina Casey headshot

Abengoa's Gigantic 'Salt Battery' Stores Utility-Scale Solar Energy

The global solar company Abengoa Solar has just announced that its massive Solana solar power plant has begun commercial operation in Arizona. The plant represents a transformational breakthrough in utility scale solar power, because it includes an energy storage system based on molten salt. The storage feature enables the plant to keep generating electricity long after the sun goes down.

Solana is also noteworthy because it puts yet another feather in Arizona's already impressive cap of solar power projects. The continued growth of the Arizona solar power sector is a bit of a surprise given the conservative leanings of Governor Jan Brewer and other public officials in the state, so it's worth taking a look at Solana in that context.

Abengoa brings night-time solar power to the U.S.

Abengoa has already established a track record of utility scale solar power plants overseas and it has just secured financing to build the largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant of its kind in Europe. In terms of keeping up with the Joneses, the Solana plant helps the U.S. - and Arizona - keep its solar profile in the global spotlight.

CSPs use mirrors to concentrate solar energy on a focal point, typically a large tower. According to Abengoa, at 280 megawatts the Solana plant is the world's largest CSP plant to use parabolic trough mirrors to concentrate solar energy (typical CSP mirrors, called heliostats, are flat and quadrilateral).

It is also the first solar plant in the U.S. with thermal energy storage, in the form of a molten salt system. The storage capacity is about six hours. That enables the plant to keep generating electricity from solar energy well into the early evening hours, when demand in the region typically peaks out.

Solana officially went online yesterday after completing a series of tests that included charging the thermal energy storage system and demonstrating that it could produce electricity for six hours using only stored energy.

All of the electricity from Solana has already been scooped up by Arizona Public Service under a power purchase agreement. It will provide the electricity equivalent of 70,000 households.

Arizona and solar power

As for Arizona's love affair with solar power, at first blush Governor Brewer would seem an unlikely supporter of President Obama's renewable energy policies, given her track record of disagreement with his other policies. However, consider that Arizona's fossil fuel resources are scanty compared to many other states, and the pieces start to fall into place.

In other words, it all comes down to jobs, specifically, jobs in the energy sector.

In addition to marking out Arizona's turf on the global solar power map, the Solana plant alone created 2,000 construction jobs in Arizona, and it will employ about 85 full time workers (which, by the way, compares quite nicely to the few dozen permanent jobs expected from the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline).

If Governor Brewer's relationship with the President has seemed more cordial of late, that could have something to do with the role of federal support for solar industry jobs in Arizona.

In addition to private sector funding, the Solana plant was made possible by a $1.45 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, and it's not the only solar project to bring federal largesse to Arizona.

Another global showcase project for Arizona is the massive Agua Caliente solar power plant, which received a $967 million federal loan guarantee in 2011 along with a daily average of 400 to 450 construction jobs. When completed, it will be the world's largest thin-film solar power plant and it will incorporate advanced technologies to smooth out power generation.

Those are just a couple of examples of the state's solar leadership. When you add everything up you get a very attractive environment for companies looking to gain net-zero cred for their operations, which could translate into a ripple effect for job creation in other sectors.

If you have any doubt, just take a look at the newly renovated Frito-Lay plant in Casa Grande, which is close to achieving net zero status thanks in part to its rooftop solar panels.

[Image: Morton salt (cropped) by Blue Beetle]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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