Sunmaxx 30 evacuated tube heat pipe with butler heat dump and butler wand. This system provides about 90% of our hot water needs.
Solar thermal energy (STE) is a technology for harnessing solar energy for thermal energy (heat). Solar thermal collectors are classified by the United States Energy Information Administration as low-, medium-, or high-temperature collectors. Low-temperature collectors are flat plates generally used to heat swimming pools. Medium-temperature collectors are also usually flat plates but are used for heating water or air for residential and commercial use. High-temperature collectors concentrate sunlight using mirrors or lenses and are generally used for electric power production. STE is different from and much more efficient than photovoltaics, which converts solar energy directly into electricity. While existing generation facilities provide only 600 megawatts of solar thermal power worldwide in October 2009, [note 1] plants for an additional 400 megawatts are under construction and development is underway for concentrated solar power projects totalling 14,000 megawatts.
More energy is contained in higher frequency light based upon the formula of , where h is the Planck constant and is frequency. Metal collectors down convert higher frequency light by producing a series of Compton shifts into an abundance of lower frequency light. Glass or ceramic coatings with high transmission in the visible and UV and effective absorption in the IR (heat blocking) trap metal absorbed low frequency light from radiation loss. Convection insulation prevents mechanical losses transferred through gas. Once collected as heat, thermos containment efficiency improves significantly with increased size. Unlike Photovoltaic technologies that often degrade under concentrated light, Solar Thermal depends upon light concentration that requires a clear sky to reach suitable temperatures.
Heat in a solar thermal system is guided by five basic principles: heat gain; heat transfer; heat storage; heat transport; and heat insulation. Here, heat is the measure of the amount of thermal energy an object contains and is determined by the temperature, mass and specific heat of the object. Solar thermal power plants use heat exchangers that are designed for constant working conditions, to provide heat exchange.
Heat gain is the heat accumulated from the sun in the system. Solar thermal heat is trapped using the greenhouse effect; the greenhouse effect in this case is the ability of a reflective surface to transmit short wave radiation and reflect long wave radiation. Heat and infrared radiation (IR) are produced when short wave radiation light hits the absorber plate, which is then trapped inside the collector. Fluid, usually water, in the absorber tubes collect the trapped heat and transfer it to a heat storage vault.
Heat is transferred either by conduction or convection. When water is heated, kinetic energy is transferred by conduction to water molecules throughout the medium. These molecules spread their thermal energy by conduction and occupy more space than the cold slow moving molecules above them. The distribution of energy from the rising hot water to the sinking cold water contributes to the convection process. Heat is transferred from the absorber plates of the collector in the fluid by conduction. The collector fluid is circulated through the carrier pipes to the heat transfer vault. Inside the vault, heat is transferred throughout the medium through convection.
Heat storage enables solar thermal plants to produce electricity during hours without sunlight. Heat is transferred to a thermal storage medium in an insulated reservoir during hours with sunlight, and is withdrawn for power generation during hours lacking sunlight. Thermal storage mediums will be discussed in a heat storage section. Rate of heat transfer is related to the conductive and convection medium as well as the temperature differences. Bodies with large temperature differences transfer heat faster than bodies with lower temperature differences.
Heat transport refers to the activity in which heat from a solar collector is transported to the heat storage vault. Heat insulation is vital in both heat transport tubing as well as the storage vault. It prevents heat loss, which in turn relates to energy loss, or decrease in the efficiency of the system.