May 1


Pros and Cons of Using Molten Salt Storage for Solar Energy


May 1, 2023

This article discusses molten salt storage for solar energy, its advantages and disadvantages, and some real-world applications of the technology. Molten salt storage is a highly efficient and cost-effective method for storing solar energy, with the ability to enhance power plant flexibility and reduce the need for backup power sources.

However, it also faces challenges such as high initial investment costs, environmental and safety concerns, and material corrosion issues. Despite these drawbacks, many solar power plants around the world are using molten salt storage, and advancements in technology are expected to drive increased adoption in the future. The article also covers various case studies and explores the potential future developments and innovations in molten salt storage systems.

Overview of Solar Energy Storage Technologies

Solar energy storage technologies play a vital role in harnessing the power of the sun and converting it into electricity that can be used by homes, businesses, and industries. Energy storage is necessary to address the intermittent nature of solar power, which is generated primarily when the sun is shining. Several energy storage solutions have been developed over the years, including:

  1. Batteries: These are the most common solar energy storage technology and can be rechargeable, recyclable, and modular. Batteries are suitable for both small-scale and large-scale applications, including residential and commercial systems as well as grid-scale energy storage.

  2. Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES): This technology involves compressing air in a storage vessel using solar power, which can later be released to drive a turbine and generate electricity. CAES systems can be designed in different scales and can also support grid stability.

  3. Flywheel Energy Storage: This system stores energy kinetically by spinning a heavy, low-friction rotor disc in a vacuum. The stored kinetic energy can be rapidly released when coupled to a generator during periods of high electricity demand.

  4. Pumped Hydro Energy Storage: This technology involves using solar power to pump water uphill to a storage reservoir, and then allowing the water to flow back down through a turbine to generate electricity during periods of high demand. This is an efficient and well-established method for large-scale storage, but it requires suitable geography and a significant amount of space.

What is Molten Salt Storage?

Molten salt storage is a thermal energy storage technology that uses a mix of salts to store high-temperature heat generated by solar energy. The stored heat can then be used to generate electricity when needed, particularly when the sun is not shining, which enables continuous power generation and increases the reliability of solar energy systems.

Components and Functionality

Molten salt storage systems consist of two primary components – the molten salt and the storage tanks. The molten salt mixture typically consists of sodium and potassium nitrate, which have excellent high-temperature heat-transfer properties, and a high heat capacity that allows for efficient energy storage. The salts can be heated up to 600 degrees Celsius or higher, and they have a low vapor pressure, which ensures that the storage system can operate at low pressures and reduces the risk of leaks.

The molten salt serves as a heat transfer fluid (HTF) that can absorb heat energy from solar collectors (such as parabolic troughs or heliostats) and then transfer it to a heat exchanger to generate steam for turning a turbine and generating electricity. The molten salt can also be stored in insulated storage tanks for extended periods, where the stored thermal energy can be released on-demand to produce electricity at times of low solar irradiation or during periods of high electricity demand.

Types of Molten Salt Storage Systems

There are two basic types of molten salt storage systems – single-tank and dual-tank systems.

Single-tank Systems

In a single-tank molten salt storage system, the heat transfer fluid and storage medium are the same. The molten salt is stored in a single, thermally stratified tank, with the hot salt layer (heated by the solar collectors) floating on the cooler, unheated salt layer. When electricity needs to be generated, the hot salt is withdrawn from the top of the tank and sent to the heat exchanger. After the heat is transferred to produce steam, the cooled salt returns to the bottom of the tank.

Dual-tank Systems

In a dual-tank molten salt storage system, two separate tanks are used – one for the hot salt and one for the cold salt. The hot tank stores the molten salt that has been heated by the solar collectors, while the cold tank holds the cooled salt after it has passed through the heat exchanger. During electricity generation, hot salt from the hot tank circulates through the heat exchanger, and the cooled salt returns to the cold tank.

Integration with Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) Plants

Molten salt storage systems are particularly well-suited for integration with concentrated solar power (CSP) plants, which use mirrors or lenses to concentrate sunlight onto a small area, thereby generating high levels of heat. The integration of molten salt storage with CSP systems allows for continuous electricity generation even when sunlight is not available, making CSP plants with molten salt storage an attractive option for utility-scale power generation projects.

Advantages of Molten Salt Storage for Solar Energy

High Energy Storage Capacity

One of the main advantages of molten salt storage for solar energy is its high energy storage capacity. Molten salt is capable of storing large amounts of thermal energy, allowing for higher storage densities compared to other storage methods such as batteries or compressed air.

In concentrated solar power plants, molten salt is used to store the heat captured from the sun’s rays. Due to its high specific heat capacity, molten salt can store more energy per unit volume as compared to solid salt or other common energy storage materials. This means that smaller storage tanks can hold a substantial amount of energy, making the energy storage system more compact and efficient.

Furthermore, the storage capacity of molten salt is not hindered by the number of charge-discharge cycles it undergoes. In contrast to battery technologies that typically degrade over time with repeated charging and discharging, molten salt can withstand multiple cycles without significant loss of storage capacity. This makes it an ideal choice for long-term, large-scale solar energy storage applications.

High Storage Efficiency

In addition to its high energy storage capacity, molten salt storage systems also boast high storage efficiency. This means that a significant amount of the collected solar energy can be effectively stored and utilized later. Molten salt storage systems can achieve efficiencies of around 90%, which is considerably higher than other energy storage methods.

The high efficiency of molten salt storage can be attributed to its excellent heat transfer properties and its ability to maintain its thermal stability over a wide range of temperatures. This reduces thermal losses during the storage process, ensuring that a greater portion of the captured solar energy is available when needed. As a result, power plants using molten salt storage can achieve a higher overall efficiency in converting solar energy to electricity.


Molten salt storage systems offer several cost advantages for solar power plants, including low maintenance costs and a reduced need for backup power sources.

Low Maintenance Costs: Molten salt storage systems have relatively low maintenance requirements due to their simple and robust design. They consist of a series of storage tanks, heat exchangers, and pumps, which require minimal maintenance compared to more complex energy storage technologies, such as batteries. This results in lower ongoing costs and a longer operational life for the storage system, ultimately lowering the overall cost of electricity generation.

Reduced Need for Backup Power Sources: By providing a stable and reliable energy storage solution, molten salt storage systems can reduce the dependence on conventional backup power sources, such as natural gas or coal-fired power plants. When the sun isn’t shining, the stored energy in molten salt can be used to generate electricity, reducing the need for fossil-fuel-powered plants to compensate for the intermittent nature of solar energy. This not only leads to cost savings but also helps to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and lower the environmental impact of electricity generation.

Enhanced Power Plant Flexibility

Molten salt storage systems can greatly enhance the flexibility of solar power plants by providing continuous power generation and load-following capabilities.

Continuous Power Generation

By using molten salt storage, solar power plants can continue generating electricity even after the sun has set or during cloudy conditions. The stored heat in the molten salts can be used to produce steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity, ensuring a constant supply of power to the grid. This is particularly important for concentrated solar power (CSP) plants, as it allows them to operate for extended periods and compete more effectively with conventional power generation technologies.

Load-following Capability

Thanks to the stored energy in molten salt systems, solar power plants can efficiently respond to fluctuations in electricity demand throughout the day. This enables them to ramp up or down their electricity output depending on the needs of the grid, which can help to maintain grid stability and reduce the need for costly peaking power plants. This ability to adapt to variable electricity demand, known as load-following, is an essential capability for the integration of renewable energy sources into modern power grids.

Disadvantages of Molten Salt Storage for Solar Energy

High Initial Investment Cost

Molten salt energy storage systems are essential components in concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, enabling them to store heat and generate electricity even when the sun is not shining. However, the adoption of molten salt storage technology comes with several drawbacks, one of which is the high initial investment cost.

Expensive Materials

Molten salt storage systems require the use of specific high-temperature materials, such as specialized salts, to function effectively. These materials are expensive to procure, resulting in higher costs for the overall storage system compared to alternative energy storage technologies, such as batteries or pumped hydro storage systems.

Construction and Installation Costs

The construction and installation process of a molten salt storage system are complex and involve many specialized components, such as large containment tanks, heat exchangers, and thermal insulation. This complexity translates into higher construction and installation costs, which adds to the overall investment required for such systems. Moreover, regular maintenance and inspection of the storage systems can also contribute to increased operational costs.

Cost Comparison with Other Storage Technologies

When compared to other energy storage technologies, molten salt storage systems have relatively high initial investment costs. For example, lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used for grid-scale energy storage, have experienced significant cost reductions in recent years, making them more financially competitive compared to molten salt storage systems.

Environmental and Safety Concerns

The use of molten salt storage systems also carries certain environmental and safety concerns that can hamper their widespread adoption.

Potential for Leaks and Contamination

Molten salt storage tanks and heat exchangers face the risk of leaks and spills that can potentially contaminate the surrounding environment. Molten salt is highly reactive and corrosive, which can cause significant environmental damage if not properly contained and managed.

Toxicity and Health Risks

Another safety concern associated with molten salt storage systems is the potential for toxic exposure to humans. Some of the salts used in these systems, such as sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, can be toxic if ingested or inhaled. Moreover, the high temperatures involved in the process can cause severe burns if humans come in contact with the molten salts, posing a significant health risk.

Material Corrosion and Degradation

A significant disadvantage of molten salt storage systems is the corrosive nature of the materials used, which can lead to system degradation and reduced performance over time.

Impact on System Performance and Lifespan

The corrosive nature of molten salts can cause equipment wear and degradation, adversely affecting system performance and potentially reducing its overall lifespan. Prolonged exposure to these corrosive materials can result in significant maintenance and repair costs, further impacting the financial viability of the storage system.

Measures to Prevent Corrosion

To mitigate the risks associated with corrosion, various measures must be implemented in the design and operation of a molten salt storage system. These include the use of corrosion-resistant materials, regular inspections and maintenance of the system, and the development of anti-corrosion coatings. These additional measures, however, can add to the already high initial investment costs of the system.

Thermal Expansion Challenges

Molten salt storage systems must also contend with the challenges associated with thermal expansion, a phenomenon that occurs when materials expand when heated.

Addressing Thermal Expansion in System Design

The design of molten salt storage systems must take thermal expansion into account to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the system. This can include the use of expansion joints and allowances in the containment tanks and piping infrastructure to accommodate the expansion of materials, adding complexity and cost to the system’s design.

Potential System Failures Due to Thermal Expansion

If thermal expansion is not adequately addressed in the design and construction of a molten salt storage system, it can lead to system failure and possible safety hazards. For example, the containment tanks could rupture due to excessive pressure from the expanding salts, resulting in leaks and spills of the highly reactive material. This failure can pose significant safety risks to personnel and the surrounding environment.

In conclusion, while molten salt storage for solar energy offers several advantages, such as high thermal energy storage capacity and the ability to generate electricity during periods of low sunlight, it also comes with several significant disadvantages. High initial investment costs, environmental and safety concerns, material corrosion and degradation, and thermal expansion challenges all contribute to the limitations of this technology, potentially hindering its widespread adoption in the renewable energy sector.

Case Studies and Real-world Applications

Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project

The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, located in Nevada, USA, is an example of concentrating solar power (CSP) technology being used at a utility scale. Owned by SolarReserve, this project started operations in late 2015 and has a capacity of 110 megawatts (MW). The solar power plant occupies an area of about 1,600 acres and consists of more than 10,000 heliostat mirrors that reflect sunlight onto a central solar tower.

The project makes use of molten salt as the heat transfer fluid, which has a higher heat capacity than other fluids, allowing for more efficient energy storage. This molten salt storage system enables the plant to store thermal energy for up to 10 hours, which means that it can generate electricity not only during the day when the sun is shining but also at night and during periods of cloud cover. This ability to provide reliable, continuous power to the grid is a significant advantage of CSP technology.

The Crescent Dunes project has a power purchase agreement (PPA) with NV Energy, a major utility in Nevada, to supply electricity at a rate of $0.135 per kilowatt-hour. The project helps Nevada achieve its renewable portfolio standard of 25% by 2025 and plays an essential role in diversifying the state’s energy portfolio by providing a clean, renewable source of electricity.

Gemasolar Power Plant

The Gemasolar Power Plant, located in Seville, Spain, is another example of CSP technology being implemented on a large scale. With a 19.9 MW capacity, the Gemasolar plant is smaller than the Crescent Dunes project but has unique features that make it a valuable case study for CSP.

Built and owned by Torresol Energy, this project started operations in 2011 and covers roughly 460 acres. Unlike Crescent Dunes, which uses a molten salt tower system, Gemasolar uses a central receiver system with molten salt as both the heat transfer fluid and the storage medium. This storage capability allows the plant to generate electricity 24 hours a day for several months a year, providing stable power to the grid.

The Gemasolar plant demonstrates how CSP technology can provide dispatchable power and contribute to the stability of the local grid. Despite its lower capacity compared to Crescent Dunes, the plant is still able to generate enough electricity to power approximately 30,000 homes, mitigating 30,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year.

Chinese Solar Thermal Power Stations

China is one of the world’s leading investors in renewable energy technologies, including CSP. Here, we examine the Delingha Solar Thermal Power Station and the Huanghe Molten Salt Solar Tower, two CSP projects that demonstrate the country’s commitment to clean energy and technological advancements in the field.

Delingha Solar Thermal Power Station

Located in the Qinghai province, the Delingha Solar Thermal Power Station is a 50 MW CSP project that uses parabolic trough concentrators to collect solar energy. Developed by China General Nuclear (CGN) Group, the project started operations in 2018 and spans approximately 2.5 million square meters.

The Delingha project uses a direct steam generation process and has a 12-hour heat storage system, allowing it to generate power continuously, even during periods without sunlight. This project is part of China’s goal to have more than 5 GW of installed CSP capacity by 2020.

Huanghe Molten Salt Solar Tower

The Huanghe Molten Salt Solar Tower, also located in Qinghai province, is another CSP project in China with a capacity of 50 MW. Developed by the China Power Investment Corporation, this project uses a solar power tower design and employs molten salt as a heat transfer fluid and storage medium.

The Huanghe project started operations in 2018 and is capable of generating electricity for up to 15 hours without sunlight. Covering an area of approximately 2.6 million square meters, the project helps China reach its renewable energy targets and contributes to the country’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These case studies demonstrate the viability, adaptability, and potential of CSP technology around the world. By learning from these successful implementations and continuing to invest in research and development, the global community can make significant strides in transitioning to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.

Future Developments and Innovations

Advancements in Molten Salt Storage Technology

As the demand for renewable energy grows, advances in energy storage technologies are crucial for improving the reliability and efficiency of the energy system. Molten salt storage technology is constantly evolving, and new advancements are continually being made to improve performance, reduce costs, and expand applications.

One of the primary focuses for the improvement of molten salt storage technology is the development of new and improved storage materials. Current molten salt mixtures include a combination of sodium and potassium nitrates or other salts, but researchers are exploring alternative materials with better thermodynamic properties, higher thermal stability, and broader temperature ranges.

Such improvements will allow for even more efficient storage and energy transfer, ultimately reducing costs and increasing the potential for use in large-scale applications. Additionally, researchers are working on the development of hybrid systems, combining molten salt energy storage with other forms of energy storage, such as batteries or even phase change materials.

These hybrid systems would have greater flexibility and efficiency, allowing them to store energy from various sources and release it when needed. The integration of multiple storage technologies into one system can lead to a more dynamic and reliable energy storage solution.

Increasing Market Share and Adoption

With the growth and development of renewable energy, the need for efficient and reliable energy storage systems becomes even more crucial. Molten salt storage has shown potential as an effective solution, and future growth forecasts predict a steady increase in the market share of this technology. Analysts foresee significant growth in the deployment of molten salt storage technology around the world.

By the end of the decade, the global market for molten salt storage systems is expected to grow significantly, driven by the expansion of large-scale concentrated solar power (CSP) plants and the continuation of supportive policies and incentives. Many governments and organizations are recognizing the potential of molten salt energy storage, and various policy and financial incentives are being implemented to promote the development and adoption of this technology.

These supportive measures—such as low-interest loans, tax breaks, and grant programs—aim to encourage investment and research, thereby expanding the market for molten salt storage systems.

Challenges and Barriers to Wider Adoption

Despite the promising potential of molten salt energy storage, the technology faces several challenges that may hinder its wider adoption. One of the most significant challenges lies in the competition from other energy storage technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, pumped hydro storage, and compressed air energy storage. Each of these technologies has its own advantages, and the energy industry is yet to determine a clear “winner” among the competing options.

Regulatory and permitting constraints represent another barrier to the expansion of molten salt storage. Since this technology is still relatively new, regulations, and permits have not yet been fully established in many jurisdictions, potentially delaying or impeding the development of new projects.

Furthermore, there may be public concerns rooted in misconceptions or lack of understanding of the technology, which could create resistance to the deployment of molten salt storage facilities. In order to overcome these challenges and unlock the full potential of molten salt storage technology, continued investment in research, development, and demonstration projects will be key.

Additionally, collaboration between various stakeholders—government bodies, industry players, and academia—will be crucial in addressing the barriers faced and facilitating the widespread implementation of this promising energy storage approach.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the main advantages of using molten salt storage for solar energy?

Molten salt storage offers several benefits, including high thermal storage capacity, efficient energy transfer, and long-term heat retention. These properties enable high-performance solar-thermal systems, lower energy costs, and constant power generation even during cloudy days or nighttime.

2. Are there any concerns related to the environment or safety when utilizing molten salt storage for solar energy?

Using molten salt storage generally poses minimal environmental and safety risks. However, potential concerns include leakage of salts into surrounding ecosystems and possible release of toxic gases upon contact with water. Additionally, high temperatures during operation necessitate proper safety measures and monitoring systems.

3. How do molten salt storage systems compare to other energy storage methods, such as batteries or pumped hydro storage?

Molten salt storage provides high energy density and long-duration capabilities; however, it involves higher infrastructure costs and complex systems. Meanwhile, batteries offer easier integration and faster response times but are limited in storage capacity and life span. Pumped hydro storage is efficient and scalable but requires specific site conditions and large capital investments.

4. What are the key challenges in implementing molten salt storage for solar energy systems?

Some challenges associated with molten salt storage systems include high upfront costs, large land requirements, operational complexity, and the need for extensive research and development. Overcoming these concerns requires the integration of improved materials, designs, and regulatory frameworks to support renewable energy storage.

5. How does molten salt storage contribute to the overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar power systems?

Molten salt storage increases overall efficiency by continuously generating electricity during periods of low sunlight. This allows solar power plants to maintain consistent output, resulting in lower electricity costs, improved grid stability, and reduced dependency on fossil fuels.

6. What future developments can be expected in the field of molten salt storage for solar energy?

Future developments may include advancements in materials, design, and control systems to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of molten salt storage. Additionally, interdisciplinary research may lead to novel applications, such as large-scale thermal energy storage and integration with other renewable energy technologies.

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