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It's the Prius of power plants - a solar/fossil fuel hybrid

by Xcel Energy. Published Wed 06 Apr 2011 22:27

Don’t you hate it when your power goes out? Truth be told, we hate it too. It makes customers unhappy, and I’ve never worked at a company where Customer Satisfaction is tracked so closely and given such a high priority on the corporate scorecard.

To ensure that we provide reliable power at a reasonable cost, our power generation mix includes coal-fired power plants because they produce steady, reliable “baseload” energy that’s not susceptible to the unpredictable nature of – well, nature. But they have their drawbacks.

Creativity at Work

We’re actively pursuing technologies to upgrade or replace older coal plants, but we still need coal in the fuel mix until newer and cheaper ways to generate electricity from other sources come along. So what can we do to make the best of the situation until those technologies are commercially viable?

We’re taking unparalleled measures to use coal wisely, and this one is my current favorite: we created America’s first pilot hybrid solar-coal plant. How cool is that? We added a solar parabolic trough field to a traditional coal-fired plant outside of Grand Junction, Colorado. When the sun is shining, solar energy actually replaces the same energy we would be getting from coal as the fuel.

It’s like the Prius of power plants – a clean energy/fossil-fuel hybrid.

This was only a small, pilot-scale test, but the results were promising. The solar integration:

• Replaced more than 260 tons of coal

• Increased the plant’s efficiency

• Proved the technical viability of integrating concentrating solar power

• Reduced the plant’s emissions by about 600 tons of carbon dioxide, 2000 pounds of nitrogen oxides and 5400 pounds of sulfur dioxides

And that’s just during a test period. Because the test coal power plant was scheduled for retirement at the end of 2010, we’re now exploring how best to use the solar field next.

I like being the first on our block to test-drive a Prius power plant. We’re working toward other long-term, clean energy solutions, but in the meantime, this is a creative step in the right direction.


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