So I was doing some research concentrating solar power (read: wandering around Wikipedia), when I clicked on a link to a supposed solar project using a fresnel collector. Huh. Looks like a coal plant. Read read read... it is a coal plant.
Why is this coal plant on Wikipedia's list of solar thermal projects? It seems so obvious in retrospect. Coal fired plants burn coal, which heats water, which drives a turbine. Solar thermal arrays heat oil, which heats water, which drives a turbine. So the plant simply set up a solar collector next to the plant, hooked pipe A up to pipe B,* and turned it into a combined-cycle coal-solar plant with 35MW of solar capacity.
Very clever. I approve.
If we can find existing coal plants in the western states that are also in particularly sunny areas, this would be a fast, cheap way to ramp up our existing solar capacity. Concentrating solar is already cheap, but this would make it even cheaper, by eliminating the need to build the actual generators. The coal plant already has them. It also eliminates the (somewhat overhyped) argument that solar is too intermittent, because the plant can always burn more coal when the solar isn't producing.
True, solar contributes less than 2% of the Liddell plant's energy production. While that's going to double soon, it still seems like a pretty small gesture. Perhaps I should wait until I hear of a coal plant switching over to 50% solar before getting excited.
But it seems like a way forward.
To kill time, I started looking for coal plants in Utah that might be suited for such an upgrade. Most of Utah's coal plants are located in Central Utah, which may limit their utility in the winter, but it's still interesting to contemplate. Thanks to the ever-helpful Sourcewatch, I found The Intermountain Power Station, a plant in Delta. Just going by the Google Maps satellite picture, it looks promising. It's in a flat area, and surrounded by empty space.
Best of all, the plant is owned by the City of Los Angeles, so it may be unusually responsive to political pressures. I think a lot of Los Angelinos would be surprised to find out that their city even owned a coal plant.
But as I said, it's a little outside the sunbelt. Arizona would probably be a more likely target.
* I believe I may be oversimplifying here.