Solar Thermal vs. Photovoltaic

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It is important to understand that solar thermal technology is not the same as solar panel, or photovoltaic, technology. Solar thermal electric energy generation concentrates the light from the sun to create heat, and that heat is used to run a heat engine, which turns a generator to make electricity. The working fluid that is heated by the concentrated sunlight can be a liquid or a gas. Different working fluids include water, oil, salts, air, nitrogen, helium, etc. Different engine types include steam engines, gas turbines, Stirling engines, etc. All of these engines can be quite efficient, often between 30% and 40%, and are capable of producing 10’s to 100’s of megawatts of power.

Photovoltaic, or PV energy conversion, on the other hand, directly converts the sun’s light into electricity. This means that solar panels are only effective during daylight hours because storing electricity is not a particularly efficient process. Heat storage is a far easier and efficient method, which is what makes solar thermal so attractive for large-scale energy production. Heat can be stored during the day and then converted into electricity at night. Solar thermal plants that have storage capacities can drastically improve both the economics and the dispatchability of solar electricity.