Putting the Sun on Center Stage

You won’t find the energy corpora­tions beating a path to Prof. Otto J.M. Smith’s door, but he believes he has designed a way to harness the sun economically to generate elec­tricity.

A hard-headed electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley. Smith calls his mirror-tower plan “a practical solar­thermal-electrical power plant that can be built at a reasonable cost with available materials and conventional engineering design techniques.” What he wants to see built is a pilot solar plant of a size (100 mega­watt) that could supply the residen­tial needs of a community of 100,000 people. On about 700 acres of land, the plant would be supplied from 1,100 towers 100 feet high. A hex­agonal field of 312 mirrors would illuminate each tower receptor.

“The absorbed heat from the hot receptors would be carried by heat exchange fluids,” according to Smith, “through pipes to a central station power plant containing heat exchangers to preheat and boil water and to superheat steam for a conven­tional turbine and electrical genera­tors.”

This proposed solar-electric plant was not a sudden idea of this profes­sor. It was a meticulous process covering the creative thought, design and costing out of components, out­side evaluation and continual refine­ments.

Smith said when the solar-elec­tric plant design was completed, two engineering reviews, one at the San­dia Laboratories and the other at China Lake, Calif., were favorable.

A third review, by the Electrical Power Research Institute, an industry-funded group in Palo Alto, Calif., was cool. Smith says the per­son there gave no detailed reasons.

Five weeks ago, the California De­partment of Water Resources and the engineering construction firm of Wismer and Becker submitted a proposal to the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) to fund a first phase devel­opment project using Smith’s plans.

The contribution of the sun to the energy needs of the world has not been widely appreciated. It is the chief energy source for human use by a wide margin.

For example, the photosynthesis process supplies people with food, fiber and wood products. Even larger amounts of solar energy evaporate and desalinate seawater to provide rainfall over land.

Now the question is to what extent can the sun replace the use of fossil fuels and uranium? It has long been known various forms of solar energy such as hydro, wind, radiant power; wood and .harvest residues can heat buildings and water and produce electricity. But can it be done on a wider scale economically?

Since the giant energy and utility corporations have viewed clean solar energy as a displacement threat to their existing capital in­vestments and profits, such a ques­tion was ignored for decades.

Since 1973, however, the changed energy situation has led to far more optimistic solar energy comparisons with conventional fuels. Indeed, in many situations, solar heating is currently competitive.

One of the major goals for solar energy supporters has been the production of economical electricity. Smith claims his calculations for capital, operating and maintenance costs make the proposal competitive now with nuclear energy and oil.

He believes, however, with mass production economies for the mirrors, the cost will go down. The cost of atomic power plants, on- the other hand, is expected only to go up — fast.

Smith said his proposal is “the present alternative to nuclear” ener­gy.

There is a heavy politico-corporate bias to our national energy research policy. Every time there is the slightest experimental result with fu­sion power, it is widely reported by government and industry. Yet no one knows whether fusion is ever even going to work.

But there is one extraterrestrial fu­sion reactor that does work. The sun. And it is well shielded, ample and net owned by Exxon. Isn’t it time to pat it on center stage?

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