Concentrating Solar Power in Shipping Containers

Take a look at any one of the concentrating solar power (CSP) projects in the U.S. and elsewhere, and you can see that – while CSP is undeniably the most efficient form of solar energy—the land needed (5 to 10 acres per megawatt) is considerable.

At least, it used to be. Now, a company called Nanogen Power Systems, Inc. has developed CSP technology that deploys from a shipping container.

Shippable Solar for Disaster Relief

Currently being used (or recommended) for backup power supply in crisis situations around the globe, the 1-MW (P3) unit supports civilian power delivery, governmental power security, and even military power needs in a country facing civil unrest, for example. These freestanding, off-grid power plants are also great in emerging nations whose remote communities can’t begin to prosper and build infrastructure without reliable power.

The cost, about $0.12 to $0.18 per kilowatt hour, is competitive with coal. Even expensive silicon solar can’t achieve much more than 15 percent efficiency, at three times the cost of CSP, and thin-film provides only 12 percent for twice the cost.

Bedroom-Sized Portability

The typical shipping container is 19.5 feet long, and a 40-foot cargo container is 39 feet long. In terms of human-sized living space, the 20-footer is the equivalent of a room about 133 square feet, or about 10 feet wide and 13 feet long. In other words, the average person’s bedroom. Yet according to Nanogen, three of these contain enough space to crate and ship an entire 1-megawatt (MW) CSP system.

This means putting the steam turbine and generator in a 20-foot unit, and the parabolic trough collectors (with fold-down walls) in two 40-foot units. Because the CSP components are shipped in standard steel cargo containers, there are no zoning issues or building permits required.

Once on the ground, two workers equipped with a laser level and a compass align the two containers with the sun, drop the solar-trough-containing walls, and complete the plumbing.

The turbine/generator unit is equally “plug-n-play,” needing only water pipe sections. In fact, two workers can assemble the unit in two days without heavy equipment, according to Nanogen.

I wonder just how long it will be until homeowners with a bit of land will begin to demand their own container-sized CSP systems. After all, if the technology is that simple, what’s to prevent the average joe from capitalizing on the one form of solar power that really delivers a bang for every buck: 11 to 14 percent for solar trough systems – a figure that rises rapidly to more than 25 percent when using molten salt or other storage technologies.

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3 comments on “Concentrating Solar Power in Shipping Containers

Lewis Perelman

Sounds useful for some special applications. But it is hard to see how this can be considered competitive with coal when the cost of energy storage is not accounted for. This product seems like one of those Christmas presents that says “batteries not included.”

This is a very attractive concept. What would be a price of a 10 MW plant or 1 MW plant.

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