Planning a concentrating solar power plant in the American southwest? The National Renewable Energy Lab wants to help.

NREL is teaming up with Iberdrola Renewables and other companies to measure and analyze the sunlight's strength and consistency at different locations throughout Arizona. Scientists love to come up with clever acronyms for their projects. So NREL is calling the latest undertaking the Solar Resource and Meteorological Assessment Project (SOLRMAP).

The American southwest is a prime location for concentrating solar-thermal players, whose technologies harvest the sun's heat to drive power generators (see video demo). Abengoa Solar, for one, is developing a 280-megawatt solar-thermal plant to sell electricity to the utility Arizona Public Services Co. (see Abengoa Q&A: Heating Up the Solar-Thermal Market).

The lab and Iberdrola, which is better known as a major wind energy developer, installed the first measuring station on Monday with a radiometer by Irradiance Inc., said Steve Wilcox, a senior engineer at NERL's solar radiation research lab. Wilcox declined to say where Iberdrola's station is located.

In fact, he won't disclose the locations or names of the other roughly half-dozen companies involved in the project because NREL signed non-disclosure agreements with these companies. But NREL will get the data for its own research, which can be made public.

The radiometers will measure the intensity and consistency of the sunlight in different seasons and at different times of the day, as well as wind speed and temperatures.

The lab would like the project to go na tional eventually, if money is available. The project can provide data to help designing not only solar-thermal but other types of solar power plants as well.

"NREL loves to ingest data, so we would love to see it go on for a long time," said Wilcox, who said an increasing number of solar companies are turning to NREL for help for developing power plants.

NREL already offers a trove of solar maps and other solar energy resources. Companies can comb through the data to find hot spots for building power plants and figure out how far their projects would be from transmission lines and populations. In fact, the lab's solar radiation research staff has been collecting data since 1981.

With better instruments and software however, the scientists can gather higher resolution data and produce more sophisticated modeling and forecasting. The SOLRMAP project aims to do just that.

NREL researchers will supervise the instrument installation and data collection while participating companies will provide the funding and maintenance, Wilcox said. Each one of Irradiance's instruments costs between $10,000 and $12,000, Wilcox said.

Irradiance, by the way, also is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to measure solar energy at sea for designing better solar power systems for data-collecting buoys.

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