Friday, August 04, 2006

Australia: a solar tower to power some 100,000 homes

With innovations like a skyscraping solar energy system, Australian entrepreneurs have taken the lead in finding fossil-fuel alternatives--and grabbed a beachhead in a huge global market.

IDEA NO. 26 If your domestic market is small, go global in pursuit of investors as well as customers.
IDEA NO. 27 When economic factors spur demand, look to the past for ideas that were ahead of their time.
IDEA NO. 28 Striking design can offset objections to large-scale industrial projects.

RATTLING DOWN A RED DIRT ROAD ON THE EDGE OF THE Australian outback, Roger Davey hits the brakes and hops out of a rented Corolla. With a sweep of his arm, he surveys his domain--24,000 acres of emptiness stretching toward the horizon, the landscape bare but for clumps of scrubby eucalyptus trees and an occasional sheep. It's a dead-calm antipodean winter's day, the silence of this vast ranch called Tapio Station broken only by the cry of a currawong bird. Davey, chief executive of Melbourne renewable-energy company EnviroMission, aims to break ground here early next year on the world's first commercial "solar tower" power station.

"The tower will be over there," Davey says, pointing to a spot a mile distant where a 1,600-foot structure will rise from the ocher-colored earth. Picture a 260-foot-diameter cylinder taller than the Sears Tower encircled by a two-mile-diameter transparent canopy at ground level. About 8 feet tall at the perimeter, where Davey has his feet planted, the solar collector will gradually slope up to a height of 50 to 60 feet at the tower's base. If Stanley Kubrick had put a power station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it would've looked like this. Acting as a giant greenhouse, the solar collector will superheat radiation from the sun. Hot air rises, naturally, and the tower will operate as a giant vacuum. As the air is sucked into the tower, it will produce wind to power an array of turbine generators clustered around the structure.

The result: enough clean, green electricity to power some 100,000 homes without producing a particle of pollution or a wisp of planet-warming gases. Unlike wind farms and traditional solar panels, which generate electricity only when the wind blows or the sun shines, the solar tower is designed to replace carbon-spewing power plants. "We're aiming to be competitive with the coal people," says Davey, 60. "We're filling a gap in the renewable-energy market that has never been able to be filled before." And although its final dimensions are still being tweaked, the 50-megawatt Tapio Station plant is just the small model: A half-mile-tall version is in the works for China, and EnviroMission is scouting sites in the American Southwest for other possible skyscraping power plants.

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