How concentrated solar power could fuel the future
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What if we could not only harness the power of the sun, but actually use it to run the entire planet?
Concentrated solar power (CSP) has the potential to do just that — using arrays of revolving mirrors called heliostats, light is reflected into a massive receiver. Thanks to recent advancements in technology, the cost to replicate these Sunlight Refineries™ is dropping. Soon solar energy will be cleaner and cheaper than using fossil fuels, which could mean adoption on a global scale.
Heliogen, a company founded by Bill Gross and backed by Bill Gates, wants to eliminate all uses of fossil fuels. Using cameras, AI, and machine learning, they are working to make these CSP systems smarter and much more efficient.
This episode is from Hard Reset, a Freethink original series about rebuilding the world from scratch and reimagining everything from first principles.
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NARRATOR: This might look like a death ray, but it’s not. It’s actually…
One enormous, very accurate magnifying glass.
NARRATOR: This magnifying glass has a technical name, a sunlight refinery. To use it, find somewhere really sunny, plop down a bunch of mirrors, bounce the sunlight into a single spot and you can melt just about anything. Okay, so it is kind of death ray-ish. Why do this? Because manufacturing steel or cement requires a lot of heat and making something super hot has historically meant burning dinosaurs.
STEVE SCHELL: You look at the massive carbon footprint that is associated with these industrial applications and it can’t be ignored.
NARRATOR: Twenty percent of global carbon emissions to be precise. And because this technology is so good, it might just change the entire energy industry. And prevent World War III in the process.
This is “Hard Reset,” a series about rebuilding our world from scratch.
Just east of Six Flags and north of LA is a place called Lancaster, which is very flat, very hot and a perfect place to test a takeover of the world’s energy supply. [dramatic music] Yeah, that sounded more Bond villain-y than I thought it would. Anyway, these are called heliostats and the reason this solar refinery works so well is that under these mirrors and shot glasses are pretty simple motors that they can control remotely. And this allows the mirrors to change angles throughout the day, depending on where the sun is. How do they know where the sun is? Interns. No, AI, of course.
BILL GROSS: You need to take each of thousands of mirrors and point them very, very precisely, accurate to about 1/10 or 1/20 of a degree.
NARRATOR: That’s Bill Gross, genius visionary and founder of over 150 companies. Also super nice guy.
GROSS: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
NARRATOR: At the top of the tower, high-resolution cameras monitor the position of the mirrors below.
SCHELL: You can actually see the two at the top are the easiest to pick out ’cause they’re on booms above the receiver.
NARRATOR: So Heliogen gets all those mirrors to reflect sunlight into that big target at the top.
SCHELL: So what we’ve got just above us is the solar receiver. So you can see that’s what we saw from ground level. That’s where that concentrated sunlight is focused when the field is operating.
NARRATOR: The cameras know if the mirrors are bouncing into the sun because those cameras are assessing the quality of the sky’s blue. Let’s break that down with Steve, who has cool tattoos.
SCHELL: This is my robot battle armor and what I have here is a jungle on an alien planet with robots tending the garden.
NARRATOR: And is in charge of the technology stuff here.
SCHELL: What these cameras see is the reflection of the sky close to the sun. Close to the sun, the sky appears very bright from the scattered sunlight coming through it and the further away from the sun you look, the darker or less bright that patch of sky appears to be.
NARRATOR: So the cameras look at the color blue and the AI uses that information to assess the distance from the sun, deduce the orientation of the mirror and therefore, where the beam is going.
SCHELL: So every few seconds, we get a measurement of where that beam is going and we can command the heliostat to make small corrections to optimize its tracking. In this industry, that is a complete game changer ’cause now we don’t rely on the hardware to be so precise, we have software to make it precise. So it really changes everything about how that plant…
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