Sandia LabNews

Sandia to celebrate 40 years of solar power research

1970s photo of visitors at the newly built solar tower

In 1978, Sandia began a unique program of research on concentrating solar power at the newly constructed National Solar Thermal Test Facility. Forty years later, the facility is still the only one of its kind in the United States.

Sandia will mark the solar tower’s 40th anniversary on July 31 with an event that will include tours of the test facility and talks by Sandia researchers, leaders, sponsors and industry representatives.

The facility’s primary goal is to provide experimental engineering data for the design, construction and operation of components and systems for industrial-scale concentrating solar thermal electrical plants for large-scale power generation.

How it works

The facility’s heliostat field comprises 218 computer-controlled, mirror-like devices that concentrate sunlight into a single beam that is directed to a receiver on the 200-foot tall solar tower, with a total thermal capacity of five megawatts. The facility also has a solar furnace, a high-flux solar simulator, a dish test facility, an optics lab, an engine test facility, concentrated photovoltaics, a rotating platform and a molten salt test loop.

Besides testing and proving a variety of concepts for concentrating solar power plants, the facility is used for a variety of other defense and space applications that require high heat flux and temperatures for materials testing or aerodynamic heating simulation, as well as large field optics for astronomical observations or satellite calibrations.

Solar tower under construction in 1978
MIRROR IMAGE — Aerial photo of the solar tower taken in April 1978, while under construction.  (Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)
Vice President Walter Mondale visits Sandia's solar research facilities on January 10, 1978

SUNSTRUCK DIGNITARIES — Vice President Walter Mondale visited Sandia’s solar research facilities on January 10, 1978. Foreground from left, Morgan Sparks, Mondale, Herman Roser, Governor Jerry Apodaca, Senator Pete Domenici.  (Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)