Spain's Gemasolar: The World's First Baseload Solar Power Plant

Located in the hot, dry Spanish countryside near the village of Fuentes de Andalucia, where summer temperatures soar, then swelter over 100?F, Torresol Energy's Gemasolar commercial-scale concentrated solar power plant (CSP) achieved a global milestone last summer by using an innovative storage system - molten salt - to provide uninterrupted power for an entire day, sunrise to sunrise. (See progress on the first US plant of this type in an earlier article.)

Starting on the first day of operation, Santiago Arias, a tall and lanky 50-year-old engineer and Torresol's co-founder, gave lively, enthusiastic tours of the power plant. Watch an Australian reporter (who appears either over Red-Bulled or slightly summer sun-addled as he sees the light) running his hand along the heat storage tank like a religious pilgrim stroking a holy relic:

The 19.9 MW Gemasolar plant can store heat energy generated throughout the day in two tanks of molten salt that combine 60% potassium nitrate and 40% sodium nitrate, and retain 99% of the heat for up to 24 hours. This stored energy can satisfy peak summer energy demand long after sunset.

This new technology has been adopted and commercialized so quickly it's hard to remember how novel it seemed just a year ago. Nearby, Andasol 1, built by Terresol in 2008, was the first CSP power plant in the world to use molten salt storage commercially - but for only seven hours a day.

Coming online just over a year ago, long before BrightSource and SolarReserve, the new $325 million Gemasolar uses 2,650 heliostats to

direct the sun's energy to heat molten salt in a receiver sitting on top of a 450 foot tall tower and is upending all assumptions of solar power's day-light dependence. A bit of global cognitive dissonance in spite of Torresol's 2010 award for "engineering firm of the year" and "commercialized technology Innovation of the year" at the US CSP Today Awards.

Then late last June, Tony Seba, a US journalist traveled to see what was still considered

target="_blank">quixotic tech; the Forbes clean-tech blogger later exclaimed:

Today I have witnessed the future of energy: a solar power plant capable of generating solar electricity around the clock.

Seba, author of "Solar Trillions...Investment Opportunities in the Emerging Clean-Energy Economy," is probably prone to techo-cheerleading (trillions?), but he has still identified a possible trend: CSP's baseload power complimenting intermittent power from renewables like PV and wind.

Click here for technical specs and check out another CNN video of Gemasolar-- with Santiago Arias and great visuals.

Is this a paradigm shift from baseload and peaking power?

Photos: Gemasolar