Last we heard, First Solar was the only American solar company setting up massive shop in China. As of this past Friday, however, it appears as if the Arizona powerhouse will have to share the space with a compatriot—Californian concentrating solar power company eSolar Inc., which will build a number of solar thermal “power tower” plants over the next decade. The plants are expected to generate a total of over 2,000 megawatts of electricity, which at peak output would be equivalent to that of a large nuclear facility.
Solar panels produce electricity. Literally, when sunlight hits them, photons start moving around and generating an electric current. This is why the technical name for them is photovoltaics: light + electricity. But there is another kind of solar power that tends to get short shrift: solar thermal. Solar thermal can be applied in many different ways, so it's not quite as easy to stick a label on as photovoltaics. All the methods use energy from the sun to heat fluid, but the next steps (and applications) can vary widely.