You may have heard it before, but I’ll say it again: Solar power is about to become the next big thing.
Seriously, I mean it this time — and quite literally too. That’s because EnviroMission, an Australian-based firm, has recently set in motion plans to erect a massive 2,625-feet solar updraft tower at a site in Arizona that, when finished, should generate 200 megawatts of electricity. To get a good sense of the project’s epic scale, the structure is a mere 30 feet shorter than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skycraper, the world’s tallest building, which is already more than twice the height of the empire state building.
And while solar updrafting is technically considered a form of solar power, the process of producing electricity is entirely different from what you’d find with at conventional solar farms. There are no photovoltaic cells or mirrors. In fact, running a solar tower is a comparatively low maintenance operation.
For a comprehensive understanding of how the technology works, think of it as a process that involves linking together three distinct, but effective technologies:
1. Greenhouse effect. At the base of the tower is a canopy comprised of glass panels, which air as it’s continually being heated by the sun’s rays. Think of it as a sprawling greenhouse where the temperature can get as high as 90 degrees Celsius.
2. Chimney effect. As a general rule of thumb, heat floats upwards due to the differences in air density between hot and cold air, a phenomenon known as convection. The greater this difference is, the greater the force of buoyancy. In this case, the temperature drops one degree for every 100 meters of elevation. Translation: Air differential within a 2,625-feet high tunnel is a lot of force.
There are numerous advantages to updraft technology compared to other forms of renewable energy. For instance, it works in any weather, any time of day and is clean as the dickens. (Read: no emissions and no dirty feedstock like coal). And at 60 percent efficiency — the highest of all renewable energy technologies — what’s not to like?
The only aspects of the project that has proved to be challenging is finding the space and the colossal task of erecting the darn thing. EnviroMission estimates that it will cost $750 million dollars to bring the project to fruition, at which point the tower will be relied upon to provide energy for a bloc of 150,000 homes and continue to do so throughout a period of up to eighty years.
As this impressive a feat as this sounds, scaling up the technology to where it’s capable of electrify a city like Los Angeles would be a tall order. It would take about a dozen towers to meet the needs of the city’s nearly 4 million residents, according to Gizmag.
Recently, a few promising signs of progress has rendered such a reality slightly less daunting. The company has put up a working stack in Jinshawan, a region in Mongolia, where the system is generating 200-kilowatts of electricity and beyond that there are even plans to expand the technology to regions in Spain and Namibia.
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