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Ausra Makes Solar Thermal Simple and Cheap

A start-up decades in the making may accelerate the solar-energy revolution

3 min read

Solar-thermal power has never seemed as technologically smart as photovoltaic technology. After all, a Neanderthal man could warm himself in the sun, but it took Einstein to explain the photoelectric effect.

But these days the idea of using sunlight to heat fluids to generate electricity is suddenly looking like a bright idea. At least 10 solar-thermal power plants are being developed for installation in the United States, and another 17 are under construction or being planned in Algeria, China, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, and Spain. With a typical plant generating somewhere between 50 and 500 megawatts, that's a lot of clean power due to come online. (New photovoltaic installations worldwide totaled a record 2826 MW in 2007, according to Solarbuzz.)

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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