United Technologies' Molten Salt Solar Power Generation

Jan.17.08 | About: United Technologies (UTX)

A new technology has just recently blossomed in Windsor Locks, Connecticut with Hamilton Sundstrand, a subsidiary of United Technologies (NYSE:UTX), regarding solar energy. Rocketdyne made a big hit back in the early '80s with a solar generator field of mirrors that focused a beam of concentrated energy on a vat of water and created steam for generating electricity.

The system model was provided a grant from the U.S Government for the development of a prototype. A new version of the same system, in collaboration with U.S Renewables Group, (i.e. Mr. Lee Bailey - Managing Director of US Renewables Group) is being funded this year by the U.S Energy Department utilizing molten salt or solid brine as the heating storage media. A combination mixture of sodium and potassium nitrate (Moten Salt), heated at 1200 deg F can retain it's heat 15 times longer than that of water. This new brine solid mix becomes liquid between 550 and 1200 deg F, and it is being touted as the latest "Renewable" heat transfer fluid. After heating the molten salt to over 1050 deg F, the liquid is stored in a hot tank and throttled into a steam generator, to produce high pressure steam; the steam is then passed through an electric turbine to produce electrical energy. The molten salt is then pumped back into the solar generator and re-generated for the next cycle. There is only a 1% degradation in the volume of molten malt lost to the environment, and the water used can be reclaimed from steam condensate discharged from the turbine for regenerating.

The system efficiency generated is less than 98% and there is no fossil fuel discharge to the atmosphere. Molten salt allows the steam generator to operate at much higher temperatures and more stable, with less heat loss to the atmosphere. The greater efficiency of the molten salt justifies additional expense for added infrastructure in ANSI Piping and Insulation media to transport the hot fluid.

UT states that this type of system will produce up to 550 megawatt peak power and continuous 55 megawatts, or about enough electricity to run near 1050 households, similar to Consumer's 50 Megawatt Generating Station in Otsego, Michigan. Typically, the only drawback of the system's installation is the need for full sunlight during peak load.

The regions of the U.S that are most likely to be utilized would be the South West, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Southern California. Southern Europe and Australia are prime climates that have enough percentage of solar exposure to justify the installation expense of the 1200 acre field of mirrors - called Heliostats - needed to reflect and concentrate the sun's energy on the molten salt receiver.

The U.S Department of Energy has earmarked an additional $7.8 million over the next 2 years' departmental budget for clean energy technologies, of which UT has the first shot at gathering. The Los Alamos Lab in Sante Fe is the first application being planned for a 5 megawatt pilot project utilizing the "molten salt" concept. Hamilton Sundstrand has the patent on Rocketdyne's pilot concept and will be in the lime light next year with a 20 year investment of near $7.8 million for the current fiscal year.

A good stock investment over the next 9 months would be in UT, due to this new solar powered technology, especially considering the solar power plant idea's popularity; EU and Australian governments are currently considering similar pilot plant projects. This strategy of power generation is much more popular than nuclear or coal fired power because of the EU Nations' Kyoto Treaty Compliance. UT purchased the Rocketdyne business and patent for the solar power plant from Boeing (NYSE:BA) in late 2005 and split the unit's business groups between Pratt-Whitney and Hamilton-Sundstrand, which is known more commonly as a major supplier of components for the aerospace industry.