18. January 2023
TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X highlight images

So­lar tow­er pow­er plants – sun­light be­comes elec­tric­i­ty on de­mand

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Space, Energy
South Africa: Khi Solar One Power Station
South Africa: Khi So­lar One Pow­er Sta­tion
Image 1/4, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

South Africa: Khi Solar One Power Station

The Khi So­lar One Pow­er Sta­tion is lo­cat­ed in Raaswa­ter, South Africa. The so­lar tow­er pow­er plant has been in op­er­a­tion since 2016 and has a nom­i­nal out­put of ap­prox­i­mate­ly 50 megawatts. In this Tan­DEM-X im­age, the cir­cle of so­lar mir­rors ap­pears strik­ing­ly ra­di­ant. The 2120 he­liostats are aligned with the Sun and re­flect the radar beams at an al­most iden­ti­cal an­gle, mak­ing them ap­pear very bright. Us­ing its 'star­ing spot­light' mode, the satel­lite ob­served an area of 3.9 by 4.8 kilo­me­tres with a res­o­lu­tion of 74 by 30 cen­time­tres (range di­rec­tion by az­imuth/flight di­rec­tion).
Spain: Plataforma Solar de Almería
Spain: Platafor­ma So­lar de Almería
Image 2/4, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Spain: Plataforma Solar de Almería

This Tan­DEM-X im­age shows the Platafor­ma So­lar de Almería (PSA), run by Span­ish re­search cen­tre CIEMAT. Since 1982, re­searchers from all over Eu­rope have been us­ing the con­cen­trat­ed pow­er of the Sun to test and op­ti­mise high-tem­per­a­ture so­lar tech­nolo­gies in prac­tice. DLR played a ma­jor role in the plan­ning and con­struc­tion of the PSA and has had a re­search group on site ev­er since. Var­i­ous test fa­cil­i­ties with dif­fer­ent­ly shaped mir­rors are sit­u­at­ed on an area of more than 20,000 square me­tres. This view from space re­veals the dif­fer­ent struc­tures and com­plex lay­out of the re­search site.
USA: Ivanpah, the largest solar thermal power plant in the world
USA: Ivan­pah, the largest so­lar ther­mal pow­er plant in the world
Image 3/4, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

USA: Ivanpah, the largest solar thermal power plant in the world

Ivan­pah in the US state of Cal­i­for­nia is the largest so­lar ther­mal pow­er plant in the world. The radar satel­lite's 'slid­ing spot­light' mode en­ables imag­ing of an area of 11.7 by 10.5 kilo­me­tres at a res­o­lu­tion of 1.74 by 1.8 me­tres. The in­di­vid­u­al fa­cil­i­ties – Ivan­pah I, Ivan­pah II and Ivan­pah III – and the field con­tain­ing a to­tal of 173,500 he­liostats can be seen in this Ter­raSAR-X im­age. In 2021, the en­er­gy sup­plied by the plant amount­ed to 706 gi­gawatt hours. The pow­er plant has been in op­er­a­tion since 2013 and saves around 450,000 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide per year.
USA: Close-up view of the Ivanpah II solar tower
USA: Close-up view of the Ivan­pah II so­lar tow­er
Image 4/4, Credit: DLR (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

USA: Close-up view of the Ivanpah II solar tower

The USA is one of the world's largest pro­duc­ers of so­lar en­er­gy. So­lar en­er­gy pro­duc­tion in the coun­try in­creased from 1.2 ter­awatt hours in 2010 to 132 ter­awatt hours in 2020, which cor­re­sponds to an 11.4 per­cent share of to­tal elec­tric­i­ty pro­duc­tion. In Oc­to­ber 2022, the Ger­man radar satel­lite Tan­DEM-X ac­quired a par­tic­u­lar­ly de­tailed im­age of the Ivan­pah II so­lar tow­er in Cal­i­for­nia. The fa­cil­i­ty was cap­tured in 'star­ing spot­light' mode, with a res­o­lu­tion of 75 by 30 cen­time­tres.
  • The highlight images from the German TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar satellites show solar tower power plants in Spain, South Africa and the USA.
  • Focus: Space, Earth observation, energy

Solar power is becoming an increasingly important source of energy worldwide. At present, photovoltaic systems are predominantly being used in Germany. For sunny countries, solar tower power plants are a valuable addition. They store heat and can generate electricity at any time – even when the sun is not shining. The new highlight images from the German TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X radar satellites present unique images of the changing Earth and also show solar thermal power plants around the world.

In solar thermal power plants, movable mirrors, referred to as heliostats, concentrate the sunlight onto a solar tower. The mirrors track the course of the Sun. This creates temperatures of several thousand degrees. A heat transfer medium, usually molten salt, is heated in a heat exchanger located at the top of the solar tower. As soon as electricity is to be generated, the storage tank supplies a steam generator with thermal energy. This creates steam that drives a turbine. The steam turbine is connected to a generator that ultimately converts the kinetic energy into electricity.

A glimpse from space

Solar tower power plants are clearly visible in radar images acquired when the satellite and the Sun are in a favourable arrangement. The German twin satellites, TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, orbit Earth together in a sun-synchronous, polar orbit. They pass over the equator at approximately 06:00 and 18:00 every day, at which time sunlight falls on their solar cells and supplies the satellites with electricity. When acquiring scientific radar images, the line of sight of their synthetic aperture radar (SAR) antennas is angled to the side, allowing the satellites to look at the solar mirrors at an angle very similar to that between the mirrors and the Sun. The heliostats reflect transmitted radar radiation back to the satellite. As a result, the mirrors appear very bright in the radar image.

For a better visual representation, DLR's team of experts placed an additional filter over the images, which takes into account the surface roughness of the recorded structures. Smooth surfaces are have a red hue, while rough surfaces appear greenish. The result – these colourful radar images.

The image gallery includes a view of Almería, Spain. The solar research facility Plataforma Solar de Almería (Image 2) is the largest research, development and test centre for concentrated solar technology in Europe. It is owned and operated by the Spanish Centre for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research (CIEMAT). A DLR research group has been based there for over 30 years and is using some of the test facilities to drive innovation and the widespread use of solar energy.

Solar energy in Germany

Due to the meteorological conditions and the considerable amount of space required, there are no commercial solar towers in Germany yet. However, DLR operates a test facility for solar thermal power plants and for the development of solar fuels in Jülich. Here, researchers are working on further improving the electricity generation and cost efficiency of these power plants. In the future, locations with high, but so far insufficient, levels of direct solar radiation could also benefit from this. Photovoltaic systems are the main source of solar power in Germany. In 2021, they accounted for around 10 percent of the electricity demand in Germany. This alone saved almost 34.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) – an important contribution to climate protection. The energy crisis only strengthens the appeal of solar power, which is currently also one of the most economical energy sources for generating electricity. So far, 2.2 million photovoltaic systems have been installed nationwide, with a total output of 59 gigawatts and the expansion is steadily progressing.

About the mission

The TerraSAR-X mission is being implemented on behalf of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), with funding from the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action. It is the first German satellite to have been created as part of a Public–Private Partnership (PPP) between DLR and Airbus Defence and Space GmbH (formerly Astrium). Airbus Defence and Space shared the costs of the development, construction and deployment of the satellite. The Geo-Intelligence Programme Line at Airbus D&S (formerly Infoterra GmbH) is responsible for the commercial marketing of the data. Since 2016, the project has been operated under a continuation agreement with Airbus.

Contact
  • Bernadette Jung
    Ed­i­tor
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    Cor­po­rate Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
    Telephone: +49 8153 28-2251
    Fax: +49 8153 28-1243
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Weßling
    Contact
  • Markus Bachmann
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Mi­crowaves and Radar In­sti­tute
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling
    Contact
  • Dr.-Ing. Stefan Buckreuß
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Mi­crowaves and Radar In­sti­tute
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling
    Contact
  • Dr.-Ing. Manfred Zink
    Deputy Di­rec­tor
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Mi­crowaves and Radar In­sti­tute
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling
    Contact
  • Elke Reuschenbach
    Head of Pub­lic Re­la­tions
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    In­sti­tute of So­lar Re­search
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-4153
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Cologne
    Contact
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