History of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)

Even though the CSP technology is revolutionary within the field of renewable energy there is nothing new about the idea of concentrating solar power. The first mentioning of the use of concentrating solar power derives from ancient Greece, where Archimedes in 214-212 BC, as a defensive tactic, used bronze shields to concentrate the sun's rays onto invading Roman ships which, according to the myth, caught on fire. It has been widely discussed whether the myth tells a true story or not. However, Greek scientist Dr. Loannis Sakkas proved in 1973 by lining up 60 Greek sailors, holding oblong bronzed coated mirrors tipped to catch the sun's rays and directing them at a ship approximately 200 feet away, which within minutes caught fire, that the myth contains scientifically sustainable elements. 

The first documented use of concentrated solar power technology was in 1866 where Auguste Mouchout used parabolic troughs to heat water and produce steam to run the first solar steam engine. A series of inventors applied the technology in the following years. In 1912 in Meadi, Egypt, parabolic solar collectors were established in a small farming community by Frank Schuman, a Philadelphia inventor, solar visionary and business entrepreneur. The parabolic troughs were used for producing steam, which drove large water pumps, pumping 6000 gallons of water per minute to vast areas of arid desert land. 

The first operational concentrated solar power plant was built in Sant'llario, Italy in 1968 by Professor Giovanni Francia. This plant has architectural similarities to modern plants with its central receiver surrounded by a field of solar collectors. In 1982 the U.S. Department of Energy, along with an industry consortium began operating Solar One, a 10MW central-receiver demonstration project. The project established the feasibility of power tower systems.  Four years later, in 1986, the world's largest solar thermal facility, located in Kramer Junction, California, was commissioned. The solar field contained rows of mirrors that concentrated the sun's energy onto a system of pipes circulating a heat transfer fluid. The heat transfer fluid was used to produce steam, which powered a conventional turbine to produce electricity. In 1996 the U.S. Department of Energy, along with an industry consortium, began operating Solar Two - an upgrade of its Solar One concentrating solar power tower project. Operated till 1999, Solar Two demonstrated how solar energy can be stored efficiently and economically so that power can be produced even when the sun isn't shining. It also fostered commercial interest in power towers. 

As of June 2010, there were 34 CSP plants installed worldwide, totaling 880.45MW. The country with most plants is the USA with 16 plants installed. Moreover, the USA is currently planning 36 new projects. Spain is the most active country with 12 new plants installed since 2007. Furthermore, Spain has 33 CSP plants under construction and additionally 17 planned projects. Countries like Algeria, Australia, Egypt, France, India, Italy, Mexico and Morocco are also constructing concentrated solar power plants and joining the future of renewable energy.

The above is based on the following publications:

  • A Golden Thread: 2500 years of solar architecture and technology by Ken Butti and John Perlin, Cheshire books, 1980.
  • U.S. Department of Energy: The history of solar
  • CSP Today: The concentrated solar power markets report 2010 pp.7-12


Did you know...

that Aalborg CSP developed a globally-unique Integrated Energy System based on CSP enabling growth of fresh vegetables in the Australian desert?
read more