Creating cheap, clean energy is a huge problem.
So, how’s this for a big solution: Swiss researcher Thomas Hinderling wants to build solar islands several miles across that he claims can produce hundreds of megawatts of relatively inexpensive power.
He’s the CEO of the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique, a privately held R&D company, and he’s already received $5 million from the Ras al Khaimah emirate of the United Arab Emirates to start construction on a prototype facility in that country.
While limited information is available on the solar islands website, Hinderling laid out his scheme at The Oil Drum, a well-known blog about energy. Hinderling estimates that an island a mere mile across could generate 190 megawatts of power with a breakeven price point of $0.15 a kilowatt hour, or about twice current electricity prices in the United States.
The islands will consist of a plastic membrane loaded up with solar concentrating mirrors floating above the water. The mirrors are used to heat liquid to turn it into steam, which drives a turbine that generates energy.
On land, this type of electricity generation is fairly well known. So-called solar thermal plants are emerging as a leading alternative to fossil fuel power plants for future energy generation, with two of Google’s three alt-energy investments coming in solar thermal companies.
But why head to the ocean to create solar thermal power? Hinderling claims that the entire platform can be turned to align with the sun, generating maximum efficiency without a complicated tracking system. The company’s production schedule has it splashing a 1500-foot in diameter platform into the water at the end of 2010.
Mark Bollinger, a renewable energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National lab, thought it would be possible to create such an island, but questioned the viability of the enterprise.
“I’m sure it’s possible, but it seems a little bit out-there, just given where the technology is and how little of it has been developed on land,” Bollinger said.
From a feasibility perspective, he questioned the necessity of pushing solar thermal out to sea, where new variables like the waves could throw off precision-tracking of the sun’s rays.
“The reason you’d do that is if space was at a premium, but I don’t think it is, at least for solar thermal,” he said. “Where it works best is in the desert of the Southwest, and there’s a lot of land down there.”
Another big question Hinderling doesn’t address is transmission, i.e. how you get the power off the island and to the people. Luckily, offshore transmission options (.pdf) are already being explored for wind farms located out in the ocean. And Bollinger noted that there are ocean barges that already produce power for “load-constrained” areas of the Northeast.