Learn a little more about solar thermal technology - and download and 3D print your own solar field!

Our solar thermal tower testing facility at our Energy Centre in Newcastle.

Our solar thermal tower testing facility at our Energy Centre in Newcastle.

When it comes to Australia’s relationship with the sun, it can be a little ‘love-hate’ at times. Sizzling backyard Barbies, detergent down the slip-and-slide, scorched feet on white sand and wide brimmed hats throwing shadows on the cricket pitch. Beautiful.

But in equal measure, cracked earth, broken dreams and cakey catchments where water, produce or futures could have been.  It’s a tough relationship – there’s no denying. But, of late, the balance has shifted as we look differently at the sun – our most inexhaustible resource.

Every day, it provides enough energy to power our modern lifestyles and, in commercial-scale solar deployments, looks set to play a critical role in Australia’s clean energy future.

Six hot solar stats:

  • Did you know that Australia captures the highest volume of solar irradiance (ideal for the production of solar thermal energy), of any country in the world?
  • According to the International Energy Agency, by 2050, solar energy could become the largest source of electricity worldwide
  • Of that energy, Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) power plants could satisfy 11% of the global electricity needs.
  • A global shift to electricity production from solar energy would avoid the emission of up to 2.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year (that’s equivalent to taking more than 29 million cars off the road per month)
  • Estimates calculate our sun to be 4.6 billion years old with another 5 billion years of hydrogen fuel to burn in its lifetime – that’s plenty of sun to keep us going
  • According to figures from the US Department of Energy (DOE), in a single hour, the amount of energy from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year*

Viewed in this light, it’s a pretty compelling case for solar deployments in Australia – and in particular, for concentrating solar thermal (CST) power plants. These plants use mirrors to concentrate sunlight between 50 and 1000 times its normal strength.  The concentrated solar radiation is then captured as thermal energy in a working (or heat transfer) fluid, usually a gas or liquid, heated to a high temperature.

Today,  the Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative (ASTRI), of which CSIRO is the lead partner, provided a glimpse into what that solar future looks like with the release of a 3D printable model of its 25 MW** Concentrating Solar Thermal reference power plant.


A computer generated image of the ASTRI 3D model

Cool much? The desktop model, a first of its kind, is an education tool that allows Australians to get ‘hands on’ with the benefits, value and opportunity that CST technology deployments present for Australia.

Director of ASTRI, Dr Manuel Blanco said of the model release: “As the debate heats up around the best path forward for Australia’s renewable energy future, it’s the storage component of CST technology that will revolutionise the way we deploy solar power.

“This model brings that component to life, showing how the storage tanks are positioned in conjunction with the solar tower and heliostat array to capture and dispatch energy, even when the sun isn’t shining.”

A 19 x 19 centimetre model, the printable plant details the layout and positioning of more than 140 of the 6,377 heliostats (large mirrors) that make up a complete solar field along with the receiver tower and two molten (hot!) salt storage tanks.

When combined with a detailed field map of the full ASTRI heliostat array (the mirror field), the model illustrates a CST plant that could generate up to 90 GWh of electrical energy per year*** with four hours of storage per day – enough to power more than 12,000 homes each year according to figures from the Australian Energy Regulator****.

You can print your own 3D CST power plant too

It’s as easy as one, two, and three.

Step 1) Download the 3D printable STL file from the ASTRI website

Step 2) Follow the instructions to save the file then share it with your preferred 3D print supplier

Step 3) Print then marvel at the beauty and simplicity of Australia’s solar future in the palm of your hand

Watch our short video of the model’s development from design to 3D print production here.

*Each hour 430 quintillion Joules of energy from the sun hits the Earth. In comparison, the total amount of energy that all humans use in a year is 410 quintillion Joules

**The ASTRI plant design is 25 MW (electrical) with 4 hours storage to produce 90 GWh/year

***Based on figures from ASTRI’s reference site in Alice Springs

****Figures from the Australian Energy Regulator indicate that the average Australian household consumes approximately 7.4 MWh (electrical) per annum


  1. Not to be flippant but housecats are much more of a danger to the bird population than solar concentrators, but then one can find any argument against any proposal. The converse is what would be potentially gained by the avoided impact of fossil fuels.

  2. Is the STL file still available?
    I can’t find it

  3. The concept is really great, but my understanding is that such an array reeks havoc with any birds that happen to fly thru the focused beam. That unintended consequence seems to require some serious thought on how to prevent this needless destruction prior to commercial deployment.

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for your comment. We passed it on to one of our solar scientists, who responded with the following:

      “Avian mortality is an issue for all development projects in terms of habitat degradation, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and direct fatality. It is important that we understand the ongoing anthropogenic (human caused) environmental impact of any development.

      Solar projects including solar photovoltaic farms and concentrating solar power (CSP) projects are increasingly monitoring avian impacts and attempting to mitigate these were possible.

      This study by DOE (http://www.evs.anl.gov/downloads/ANL-EVS_15-2.pdf) reports on avian fatality estimates from all causes from various studies.

      They also present data from existing studies from utility scale solar facilities. Please note the sizes and technology type of each of these facilities varies significantly.

      There is specific concern about CSP plants in terms of singeing of birds’ feathers by the concentrated solar energy. This should also be considered along with impact of collision with mirrors and fences, and the electrocution from the power lines that run from the power station to the electricity grid.

      Brightsource’s Ivanpah site in California is the largest CSP site, and is very visible site on a major highway. They have attracted most of the public criticism.
      Their response (link below) compares their studies to other sources of bird deaths, and suggests they are investigating systems for deterring birds from approaching their towers where their studies suggest fatalities due to singeing are highest:

      SolarReserve has done some work to reduce risk by changing the way they stow their heliostat field during standby

      In most countries (including Australia) large projects required to produce environmental impact statements to relevant authorities for approval before the project can be built. By continual systematic monitoring of avian fatalities in utility scale solar plants, the industry can improve understanding of the impact of their facilities, and continue research into mitigation methods. At the end of the day it is up to the local authorities to consider the impacts of any new power station, be it solar, wind or fossil fuels and grant approval to proceed.”


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