Offering clean energy around the clock

June 20, 2024

Now, 247Solar is building high-temperature concentrated solar power systems that use overnight thermal energy storage to provide round-the-clock power and industrial-grade heat. Some of the hot air is also routed through a long-duration thermal energy storage system, where it heats solid materials that retain the heat. Anderson had done his MIT master’s thesis on solar energy in the 1970s, and the team realized the heat exchanger made possible a novel approach to concentrated solar power. “That way we can get at least 24, if not more, hours of energy from a sunny day,” Anderson says. “Emerging economies in places like Africa don’t have any alternative to fossil fuels if they want 24/7 electricity,” Anderson says.

As remarkable as the rise of solar and wind farms has been over the last 20 years, achieving complete decarbonization is going to require a host of complementary technologies. That’s because renewables offer only intermittent power. They also can’t directly provide the high temperatures necessary for many industrial processes.

Now, 247Solar is building high-temperature concentrated solar power systems that use overnight thermal energy storage to provide round-the-clock power and industrial-grade heat.

The company’s modular systems can be used as standalone microgrids for communities or to provide power in remote places like mines and farms. They can also be used in conjunction with wind and conventional solar farms, giving customers 24/7 power from renewables and allowing them to offset use of the grid.

“One of my motivations for working on this system was trying to solve the problem of intermittency,” 247Solar CEO Bruce Anderson ’69, SM ’73 says. “I just couldn’t see how we could get to zero emissions with solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind. Even with PV, wind, and batteries, we can’t get there, because there’s always bad weather, and current batteries aren’t economical over long periods. You have to have a solution that operates 24 hours a day.”

The company’s system is inspired by the design of a high-temperature heat exchanger by the late MIT Professor Emeritus David Gordon Wilson, who co-founded the company with Anderson. The company integrates that heat exchanger into what Anderson describes as a conventional, jet-engine-like turbine, enabling the turbine to produce power by circulating ambient pressure hot air with no combustion or emissions — what the company calls a first in the industry.

Here’s how the system works: Each 247Solar system uses a field of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats to reflect sunlight to the top of a central tower. The tower features a proprietary solar receiver that heats air to around 1,000 Celsius at atmospheric pressure. The air is then used to drive 247Solar’s turbines and generate 400 kilowatts of electricity and 600 kilowatts of heat. Some of the hot air is also routed through a long-duration thermal energy storage system, where it heats solid materials that retain the heat. The stored heat is then used to drive the turbines when the sun stops shining.

“We offer round-the-clock electricity, but we also offer a combined heat and power option, with the ability to take heat up to 970 Celsius for use in industrial processes,” Anderson says. “It’s a very flexible system.”

The company’s first deployment will be with a large utility in India. If that goes well, 247Solar hopes to scale up rapidly with other utilities, corporations, and communities around the globe.

A new approach to concentrated solar

Anderson kept in touch with his MIT network after graduating in 1973. He served as the director of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) between 1996 and 2000 and was elected as an alumni member of the MIT Corporation in 2013. The ILP connects companies with MIT’s network of students, faculty, and alumni to facilitate innovation, and the experience changed the course of Anderson’s career.

“That was an extremely fascinating job, and from it two things happened,” Anderson says. “One is that I realized I was really an entrepreneur and was not well-suited to the university environment, and the other is that I was reminded of the countless amazing innovations coming out of MIT.”

After leaving as director, Anderson began a startup incubator where he worked with MIT professors to start companies. Eventually, one of those professors was Wilson, who had invented the new heat exchanger and a ceramic turbine. Anderson and Wilson ended up putting together a small team to commercialize the technology in the early 2000s.

Anderson had done his MIT master’s thesis on solar energy in the 1970s, and the team realized the heat exchanger made possible a novel approach to concentrated solar power. In 2010, they received a $6 million development grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. But their first solar receiver was damaged during shipping to a national laboratory for testing, and the company ran out of money.

It wasn’t until 2015 that Anderson was able to raise money to get the company back off the ground. By that time, a new high-temperature metal alloy had been developed that Anderson swapped out for Wilson’s ceramic heat exchanger.

The Covid-19 pandemic further slowed 247’s plans to build a demonstration facility at its test site in Arizona, but strong customer interest has kept the company busy. Concentrated solar power doesn’t work everywhere — Arizona’s clear sunshine is a better fit than Florida’s hazy skies, for example — but Anderson is currently in talks with communities in parts of the U.S., India, Africa, and Australia where the technology would be a good fit.

These days, the company is increasingly proposing combining its systems with traditional solar PV, which lets customers reap the benefits of low-cost solar electricity during the day while using 247’s energy at night.

“That way we can get at least 24, if not more, hours of energy from a sunny day,” Anderson says. “We’re really moving toward these hybrid systems, which work like a Prius: Sometimes you’re using one source of energy, sometimes you’re using the other.”

The company also sells its HeatStorE thermal batteries as standalone systems. Instead of being heated by the solar system, the thermal storage is heated by circulating air through an electric coil that’s been heated by electricity, either from the grid, standalone PV, or wind. The heat can be stored for nine hours or more on a single charge and then dispatched as electricity plus industrial process heat at 250 Celsius, or as heat only, up to 970 Celsius.

Anderson says 247’s thermal battery is about one-seventh the cost of lithium-ion batteries per kilowatt hour produced.

Scaling a new model

The company is keeping its system flexible for whatever path customers want to take to complete decarbonization.

In addition to 247’s India project, the company is in advanced talks with off-grid communities in the Unites States and Egypt, mining operators around the world, and the government of a small country in Africa. Anderson says the company’s next customer will likely be an off-grid community in the U.S. that currently relies on diesel generators for power.

The company has also partnered with a financial company that will allow it to access capital to fund its own projects and sell clean energy directly to customers, which Anderson says will help 247 grow faster than relying solely on selling entire systems to each customer.

As it works to scale up its deployments, Anderson believes 247 offers a solution to help customers respond to increasing pressure from governments as well as community members.

“Emerging economies in places like Africa don’t have any alternative to fossil fuels if they want 24/7 electricity,” Anderson says. “Our owning and operating costs are less than half that of diesel gen-sets. Customers today really want to stop producing emissions if they can, so you’ve got villages, mines, industries, and entire countries where the people inside are saying, ‘We can’t burn diesel anymore.’”

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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