Solar Field 1: our original power tower

The new Solar Field 2 has been given most of the limelight on this blog up until now. But as its name suggests, it’s not the only concentrating solar thermal power facility at our site.

Solar Field 1, shown below, was Australia’s first ‘power tower’ when it was opened in 2006. Even though it has a newer sibling beside it, it’s still an important research facility here at the National Solar Energy Centre.

Solar Field 1, as seen from the top of the tower in Solar Field 2

This solar tower was one of the first few in the world to be constructed since the 1980s, when energy concerns caused a handful of central receiver research facilities to spring up in Europe, the USA, Japan and Israel. Although most of these first-generation towers were decommissioned after their testing programmes were complete, some are still in operation today. These include the SSPS-CRS and CESA-1 towers in Spain, Sandia’s Central Receiver Test Facility in Albuquerque, USA, the Weizmann Institute solar facility in Israel, and Themis in France.  In recent years several new central receiver facilities have been constructed for both research and commercial purposes. You can read more about the ones that generate electricity for the grid at the SolarPACES Database of Concentrating Solar Power Projects.

CSIRO’s interest in solar towers was due to their ability to generate very high temperatures inside a fixed-place receiver. The temperature can be much higher than solar troughs or linear Fresnel, which can operate up to about 500°C. One advantage of higher temperatures is that processes which use the heat can be more efficient, which gives the potential for cheaper electricity generation. Higher temperatures also open up new uses for the thermal energy.

Aerial photo of Solar Field 1

The first task of CSIRO Solar Field 1 was to demonstrate one of these new uses, which was the production of SolarGas™ at temperatures over 800°C. This process – which you can read more about at our SolarGas website – uses concentrated solar energy to convert natural gas into a product that stores solar energy in chemical form. So far, the field has been used to test two different CSIRO reactors for SolarGas™ production.

The solar field in operation. This photo shows the first SolarGas™ reactor that was tested on the tower. A larger reactor has since been installed.

But SolarGas™ isn’t the only project for which Solar Field 1 has been used. International research organisations have used it to test solar components they’ve developed, such as new heliostats and receivers. It was used to demonstrate the first stage of solar water splitting at over 1500°C on behalf of another organisation. It’s also given CSIRO a lot of experience in solar field operation, development of control software, and heliostat design – knowledge that we put to use when designing Solar Field 2.

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