Where temperatures below about 95 °C are sufficient, as for space heating, flat-plate collectors of the nonconcentrating type are generally used. Because of the relatively high heat losses through the glazing, flat plate collectors will not reach temperatures much above 200 °C even when the heat transfer fluid is stagnant. Such temperatures are too low for efficient conversion to electricity.
The efficiency of heat engines increases with the temperature of the heat source. To achieve this in solar thermal energy plants, solar radiation is concentrated by mirrors or lenses to obtain higher temperatures – a technique called Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). The practical effect of high efficiencies is to reduce the plant's collector size and total land use per unit power generated, reducing the environmental impacts of a power plant as well as its expense.
As the temperature increases, different forms of conversion become practical. Up to 600 °C, steam turbines, standard technology, have an efficiency up to 41%. Above 600 °C, gas turbines can be more efficient. Higher temperatures are problematic because different materials and techniques are needed. One proposal for very high temperatures is to use liquid fluoride salts operating between 700 °C to 800 °C, using multi-stage turbine systems to achieve 50% or more thermal efficiencies. The higher operating temperatures permit the plant to use higher-temperature dry heat exchangers for its thermal exhaust, reducing the plant's water use – critical in the deserts where large solar plants are practical. High temperatures also make heat storage more efficient, because more watt-hours are stored per unit of fluid.
Since the CSP plant generates heat first of all, it can store the heat before conversion to electricity. With current technology, storage of heat is much cheaper and more efficient than storage of electricity. In this way, the CSP plant can produce electricity day and night. If the CSP site has predictable solar radiation, then the CSP plant becomes a reliable power plant. Reliability can further be improved by installing a back-up combustion system. The back-up system can use most of the CSP plant, which decreases the cost of the back-up system.
With reliability, unused desert, no pollution, and no fuel costs, the obstacles for large deployment for CSP are cost, aesthetics, land use and similar factors for the necessary connecting high tension lines. Although only a small percentage of the desert is necessary to meet global electricity demand, still a large area must be covered with mirrors or lenses to obtain a significant amount of energy. An important way to decrease cost is the use of a simple design.
Read more about this topic: Solar Thermal Energy