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Fluid Power Puts Sun in Focus

Hydraulic actuators are key to efficient solar-power generation.

Amid heightened concerns over global warming, utilities everywhere are looking for cost-effective ways to generate electricity without burning fossil fuels and producing greenhouse gases. At the Nevada Solar One power plant in Boulder City, Nev., powerful and precise hydraulic actuators are a key element in converting the sun’s energy into electricity.

Nevada Solar One power plant
The Nevada Solar One power plant uses 760 parabolic concentrators and more than 180,000 mirrors. A single hydraulic actuator rotates each concentrator in 0.1° increments to precisely track the sun.

The 64-MW solar thermal power plant spans more than 300 acres, making it the world’s third larges t solar energy field. It generates approximately 130 million kW-hr of electricity annual1y, reportedly enough to power about 14,000 homes.

Solar thermal plants generate electricity in a different manner than the familiar photovoltaic solar panels common on rooftops. Instead, the facility uses 760 parabolic troughs — holding about 182,000 curved mirrors — to concentrate sunlight on glass and steel receiver tubes. Fluid circulating through the tubes reaches temperatures as hot as 750°F and is used to generate steam, which drives a turbine and generator to produce electricity.

Gilbert Cohen, senior vice president of developer Acciona Solar Power (ASP), a unit of Spain’s Acciona Group, says the plant is creating a lot of interest because it provides a renewable energy alternative with no fossil-fuel emissions. And the sizeable amount of electricity Nevada Solar One produces, says Cohen, illustrates the potential for more parabolic trough systems in the southwestern U.S.

New design
Another significant factor is that this is the largest solar plant of its kind to be built in the U.S. in more than 16 years, and it incorporates a precise, powerful, simple, and low-maintenance hydraulic motion system. Many older solar plants rely on electromechanical drives to rotate the collectors and track the sun. Although they met the performance and cost bogeys of the time, maintenance and performance drawbacks encouraged leaders in the solar industry to search for better solutions. For the Solar One plant, ASP teamed with Parker Hannifin, Cleveland, to devise a more-powerful and rugged hydraulic motion-control system that meets its objectives for low-cost power generation.

“Power-plant efficiency depends heavily on how well the parabolic mirror array concentrates and maintains the sun’s energy at the focal point of the tubes carrying the heat-transfer thermal fluid,” explains Woodie Francis, a Parker product manager for hydraulic rotary actuators. There is only a small tolerance band around the focal point and thermal heating efficiency falls off dramatically outside this band, he says. “Some things that can cause deviation from the focal point are backlash within the actuator, deflection and wind up of the mirrored array, and manufacturing tolerance variations from one array to the next.” Electromechanical drives have worse backlash than hydraulic versions, he adds.

Complicating matters, parabolic mirrors can act as large sails. High winds produce significant torques that try to rotate the panel from its commanded position. Torque-output limitations and, again, backlash inherent in mechanical systems made it difficult to precisely focus sunlight on the collectors in the wind. And to make the new plant more economical, APS increased the number of mirrored arrays to focus more sunlight and generate more heat, which increased wind loads acting on the larger surface area of the panels. This required more torque from each drive — challenging the capability of electromechanical drives, says Francis.inally, electromechanical systems were too frail. Because the devices have rigidly interconnected components, high winds could backload and damage the drive — forcing plant operators to curtail operations when winds hit critical speeds.

Hydraulic drives

Parker says its hydraulic drive system addresses these shortcomings. Even when occasional wind gusts generate torque that exceeds design limits, the actuators withstand backlash through “clutching” action inherent in hydraulic systems with pressure-relief valves. The solar troughs slip and rotate in a controlled fashion without damaging motion-control components, and realign and begin tracking again when the wind subsides. This lets the plant continue operating in more-adverse weather conditions than was possible in the past.

Each of the plant’s 760 solar collectors has its own hydraulic drive and electronic controls. The centerpiece is a hydraulic rotary actuator based on the industrial HTR Series from Parker’s Pneumatic Div., Wadsworth, Ohio. The rack-and-pinion actuator harnesses linear motion from opposing hydraulic cylinders operating at 3000 psi that move a rack gear back and forth. The mating pinion gear rotates 240° and produces 300,000 lb-in. of torque — enough to move the solar array when winds exceed 40 mph, yet hold position within 0.1°. The actuator housing also acts as a primary structural element between the solar panels and support pylons.

Positive-displacement gear pumps built by Parker’s Oildyne Div. in Rockford, Ill., supply high-pressure fluid to the actuators. A low-speed, 1.5-gpm pump, driven by a 0.33- hp, single-phase electric motor, powers the actuator as it positions the solar array to track the sun.


Hydraulic rotary actuators
Hydraulic rotary actuators, based on Parker Hannifin’s HTR series, produce 300,000 lb-in. of torque. The units are built to last at least 20 years with little or no maintenance.

ASP control software contains data corresponding to the theoretical sun position for any time, day, and year. The controller uses this data to point the collectors at the sun at start-up and subsequently throughout the day. To maximize receiver-tube efficiency, the hydraulic motion system must track the sun in miniscule increments — in this case 0.1° steps. Based on the sun’s speed of travel across the sky, this corresponds to the electronic control commanding the pump/motor to pulse approximately every 24 seconds. An inclinometer for each array supplies a feedback signal confirming the correct position. And because the heating tube is a continuous circuit that traverses the solar collector assemblies, all arrays must move at precisely the same time.

At the end of the day, a high-speed 3.75-gpm pump engages and quickly returns the panels to the home position, ready to begin tracking the next morning. A mechanical lock secures the troughs for the night, or in extreme weather conditions. Both pumps are reversible and include internal valving and hydraulic circuits that ensure pressure-relief thermal pressure-relief compensation against trapped volume heating affects within the fluid.

Built-in reliability
Because downtime in a power plant is expensive, Parker took steps to ensure reliability. For instance, the workhorse HTR actuators often run up to 10 million cycles per year in industrial applications. By comparison, the solar power plant has only one operational cycle per day — or less than 10,000 cycles in 20 years. With this extreme service-life safety factor, plant operators are highly confident that the hydraulic drives will eliminate maintenance and life issues encountered with the electromechanical systems.Hydraulic rotary actuators

In addition, the entire flow and pressure-control hydraulic circuits are made of 0.5-in. diameter stainless- steel tubing. Prebent tubing and fittings with judiciously positioned bends helped ensure assembly flexibility.

Each actuator’s self-contained fluid system uses a multifunctional gear oil with special additives to power hydraulics and cool and lubricate the gears. There are no filters to change, which eliminates one maintenance headache. To ensure a clean system, Parker meticulously washes components before assembly, filters the oil when it’s installed, and adds screens over the pump inlets and outlets. Because the duty cycle is quite benign, as are the general loads on gears, wear debris is not considered an issue. The unit also incorporates oversized tapered-roller bearings and dual seals at every critical interface. All these factors suggest that the design will deliver nearly maintenance- free operation for more than 20 years, says Francis.

According to ASP officials, solarthermal power is slightly more expensive than wind power but cheaper than photovoltaic, somewhere between 9 and 13 cents/kWh. But solar thermal holds several advantages over wind. One is that except for the troughs, the rest of the power plant is a standard design widely used by electric utilities. And generating capacity can be built close to where the power is needed — unlike wind, where the best wind resources are often far from where the electricity is consumed. As they’re scaled up in the future, costs of seven cents/kWh are a reasonable target, experts say.

Because trough technology relies on sunshine, future designs will include methods to store the hot fluid and use it to keep the turbines running into the night. Technology advances may someday let solar energy be used around the clock.

For more information, visit: Acciona Group at; and Parker Hannifin at For a video tour of the plant, visit