After doing some reading about solar energy I came across some information on a danger that had, quite frankly, not occurred to me before. It seems that many forms of solar thermal energy production carry a very high risk of severe fire and even explosion.
Solar thermal power plants use large mirrors to concentrate the suns light on collectors. In most systems this works through trough mirrors which focus the light onto long pipes. In others, an array of mirrors focuses the energy on a central receiver, which contains a fluid that is heated by the light. The fluid is normally pumped continuously through a system of collection tubes in order to transfer as much heat as possible.
Leaks have always plagued solar thermal power systems. The tubes must be thin to maximize thermal transfer and to keep costs down, and the scale of the systems is necessarily very large. This, combined with the stress of daily heating and cooling has lead to what might be called a “plumbers nightmare” and explains why so much labor is required to keep solar thermal plants up and running.
The engineering challenge of providing a leak-resistant way of transferring the fluid through miles, under such harsh conditions has resulted in a number of approaches, including the use of ball joints and flexible hoses. The sheer size of utility-scale installations has also been a problem, since the connections and tubing must be made as economically as possible.
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