When you think of solar power, you probably think of a few desultory panels perched on the roof of a well-meaning neighbor, generating enough power to knock a few dollars off their electric bill every month. That’s probably not so charitable of you: Residential solar panels are often a good and cost-effective way to reduce your power bill and carbon footprint.
However, for solar to be a major part of the energy mix in America, it’s not going to be because of panels on people’s roofs. Instead, it’s going to be with huge solar installations out in the middle of the desert that can store power at the times when the sun isn’t out.
Those can be a little hard to wrap your head around, conceptually–there aren’t even solar panels involved. But this video from Solar Reserve, a concentrated solar power company, is a great primer about how this power of the future works. It’s simple, really: Thousands of mirrors focus the sun’s light into a giant tower, where it heats salt until it melts (the amount of mirrored panels may be drastically reduced due to some inspiration from sunflowers). That molten salt is then used to heat up water and make steam to spin a turbine. Because salt maintains temperature very well, the molten salt can be used even after dark to create power.
It’s solar power, but not the way you think of it. But it is one of the ways to make solar energy most effective, so much so that the DOE has helped give Solar Reserve’s installation a $737 million loan guarantee.