Australian solar + storage technology may beat wind on costs

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Australian technology developer Vast Solar has begun construction of a 6MWth (1.1MWe) concentrated solar thermal power station with three hours storage – the first stand alone plant of its type to be built in Australia.

The Jemalong project near Forbes, in western NSW, will be the first in Australia to integrate storage into a stand-alone solar power station and provide electricity to the grid, on demand at night as well as day. And, Vast Solar CEO Andrew Want suggests, it will be able to do it for around the same cost of wind energy.

The company is already working on plans for larger plants, including a 30MW facility with four hours storage, but its ability to do that in Australia is now compromised because the Abbott government is removing the institutions (the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency) that could help finance those first commercial-scale plants.

Want says the company is looking for opportunities in NSW and other sun-rich states such as Queensland, WA, and South Australia, but it is also looking at international markets such as the Middle East, US, Africa, South America and India, where such plants are being built.

vast solar array

CST technology with storage – and the ability to dispatch electricity on demand – is seen as a crucial component of future grids that will feature large amounts of variable generation from wind and solar PV. The International Energy Agency last week predicted that CST plus storage could account for 11 per cent of the world’s electricity needs by 2050.

The key is bringing down costs. Vast Solar CEO Andrew Want said the company set out five years ago to develop a low-cost, high performance CST system that could compete commercially.

“We believe we’ve done that, and this pilot project will demonstrate our system from ‘sun-to-storage-to-grid,” Want said. He said that within a few years, the technology could be delivering electricity on demand at around $100/MWh. This was close enough to wind, with the added advantage of being “dispatchable”.

At that price, Want said, projects such as those aspired to in Port Augusta, where the local community wants to replace ageing coal-fired generators with solar power, would make economic sense, as it would in off-grid mining projects and other applications. “This has the potential to change the face of the CST market around the world,” Want told RenewEconomy in an interview.

The key, though, is government support if the next scale, commercial project is going to be developed in Australia, or follow other technologies overseas. The $10 million project is being backed by ARENA ($5 million), which the government announced last week it would close, despite pre-election promises to keep it open.

Want said the plant could not have been developed without ARENA, which had been working with its private investors for the past three years, and had supported a smaller trial testing phase (pictured above). He said the support of ARENA or the CEFC was essential if the next phase was to take place in Australia. “It’s a huge leap for private investors to take all of that risk. Our main challenge is now, ‘how do we stay in Australia’?”

Want said the company began with just three founders and no funds, and now employed over 20 people.

“We’re growing fast. Our market is global, but we’ve developed all our technology locally. This is precisely what Australia should be doing – investing in new businesses, new employment and new industries for the future, to compete in global markets.”

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said: “It’s an excellent demonstration of how ARENA invests along the innovation chain – from early lab research to pre-commercial deployment – to advance renewable energy technologies.”

The Abbott government has vowed to close ARENA as part of its plan to close down all renewable energy programs to protect the coal industry, but it has to pass legislation to do so, and its fate will be decided by the Senate, Arena CEO Ivor Frischknecht said.

vast solar towerThe Jemalong plant, which will supply electricity into the main grid by the end of the year, is rated as 6MWth (thermal) and 1.1MWe (electric). It features five solar arrays that comprise 3,500 heliostats or mirrors, 5 towers less than 30 metres high with thermal energy receivers, and a thermal energy storage system providing enough energy for 3 hours’ full power operation at 1.1MWe (3.3MW storage).

The mirrors capture solar energy as heat, and the heat is stored and then released as needed to generate steam to drive a traditional turbine for electricity generation, or for industrial processes such as meat processing, brewing, or minerals processing.

The key to Vast Solar’s technology – and its stated low-cost profile – is in the heat transfer fluid and how that is integrated into the system. Want is keeping details of that close to his chest. Other CST plants are using molten storage, and one Australian firm used graphite, but Want is not saying.

CST systems were first deployed over 100 years ago, but recent advances have seen a resurgence of large-scale CST projects in the US, South Africa, and the Middle East, South America and Europe.

The Crescent Dunes project in Nevada is the largest, and will be 110MW when it is opened next year and will be able to provide power 24/7. It is also looking for opportunities in Australia.

Want said that CST power is important for Australia and for many sunny regions around the world.

“Solar thermal power plants store the sun’s energy very efficiently and at large-scale, so solar can be used to deliver power when it is most needed and most valuable, day or night.”

Want says Vast Solar’s innovations come through the use of small array modules, with low-profile towers; a very different approach to the most recent large-scale, single tower projects, such as Crescent Dunes.

The Jemalong plant will be mainly for R&D, but it will provide enough electricity (around 2,200MWh) for around 400 average homes.  

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  • wideEyedPupil

    Why only three hours storage? Is that a function of the heat transfer fluid (molten salts?), storage medium or storage vessel (insulation)? Is 3-4hrs enough from a Grid stabilisation POV?

    • James Fisher

      This plant is being built to demonstrate the technology and most importantly its cost. It is far too small to be commercial. If you want more storage you increase the size of the storage tanks and the quantity of the thermal storage fluid, but this just adds to cost and proves very little from an engineering perspective. The Spanish Gemasolar plant has shown that Solar thermal plants can operate 24/7.

      Commercial size grid connected plants will start at 30MW. Off grid plants competing with diesel would likely be commercial at 5MW and above.

      James Fisher
      CTO – Vast Solar

      • David Osmond

        Good luck James!
        Also worth pointing out that electricity demand starts to reduce rapidly after 8-9pm. Currently there are plenty of generators on the grid able to meet demand during off-peak periods, so there may not be much need for more than a few hours storage, except when talking about off-grid locations. Obviously that may change if we start substantial decommissioning of current base-load generation….

        • wideEyedPupil

          Yes David, I’m talking about that last 20% of the 100% renewable energy scenario where load balance / frequency harmonisation seems to cost the most yet solarCST seems to lend itself ideally to.

      • wideEyedPupil

        Thank-you James. Yes familiar with Gemasolar Plant and Brightsource plants — was wondering if this represents any significant advance/alternative in the technology. Good Luck very exciting this is for someone whose shared the BZE vision story many many times. Especially if your price point is what you think it might be.

      • Zvyozdochka

        Do you follow what Areva have (not) done with Dr David Mills tech? It really is criminal. Will follow your efforts with great interest.

  • Tomagain

    James Fisher, we wish you all the best in this uncertain environment!

  • Chris Fraser

    This commercial storage discussion will eventually give way to miniature residential applications … i hope ! With molten salts being used i think i can understand the system will need to be hotter than what my evacuated tubes heat up to.

  • michael

    if the claims are true and it is so close to wind power cost and has moved past the risky stage of commercialisation, why does it need ARENA?
    with a solid business case, couldn’t it source private funding or even IPO? Surely if you are willing to give up equity stake in such a solid upside as it is portrayed here, there would be takers.
    The government isn’t rescinding already committed ARENA funds, so the $5M you identify as already committed are safe. How much are you expecting the governement to fund your potential technology?

    • Crikey, a 101 in commercial finance might help here. Equity is more expensive than debt, and debt is cheaper when the banks know, see and understand the technology. Derisking debt means lower interest rates, which can cut the cost of the technology by one third. That’s why we have ARENA and CEFC, to grease the wheels. It has been ever thus for any technology. If you have money in the bank, you will be thankful they are conservative. If you rely on private money, then you got to follow Ausra, Atlantis Resources, Terrajoule and all the other Aussie technologies and go to bigger markets. Other countries would be happy to support them, because they know it will attract capital, jobs etc etc.

      • Simon Holmes a Court

        spot on giles. michael, it sounds like you’ve never been involved with commercialisation of a technology. all technology must pass through the “valley of death” where it is the lack of capital, not the merits of the technology, that post the biggest threat to the successful commercialisation.

        • michael

          Thanks Giles, you summed up my point exactly. It is the high risk nature of the current stage of commercialisation which prevents access to capital. If they were to chase equity finance, they would have to give up too much of the farm due to the inherent risk of making it to market with this technology. I was simply poiting out how differnt this is to the way it is portrayed in articles within this newsletter as being so close to parity with established technology.
          Just comes down to whether we need a standalone entity to provide asisstance to one industry, or whether alternate energy start ups could simply access in competition with other industries the government assistance available to them

          • This article claimed nothing other than in a couple of years, when a commercial scale plant or two is built, it will compete with wind. To get there, you need the commercial plant to be built. we have support schems for various sectors, but not for clean energy any more in this country if th government has its way. Which is fine if you believe climate science is crap and there is no need to move from fossil fuels.

          • michael

            apologies, I believed the comment from the CEO of ““We believe we’ve done that, and this pilot project will demonstrate our system from ‘sun-to-storage-to-grid (can compete commercially),” Want said.” was the 1.1MW system, not the future larger one.
            We will indeed need to move away from fossil fuels at some point and the numbers point to the climate changing rapidly. whether we need to fund startups such as this through unique government bodies is the arguable part.
            straight line extrapolation would suggest they have recieved $5M to get to the 1MW plant, so a 30MW upscale may require another $150M grant which is starting to get into serious money. Do they deserve this against other startups with similar risk profiles? who knows, but it isn’t a baseless case to say it is fine for them to compete on an equal footing for funding.

          • wideEyedPupil

            Equal footing with coal miners and CSG miners? I’d say that case is not only baseless, but I’d spend all of tonight and tomorrow arguing why that is absolutely the worst thing our country could ask for.

          • michael

            haha, Who said anything about competing with coal and CSG?? Competing for government funds with no payback required against other technology companies! You’ve conveniently pulled that red herring into the discussion. ohwell, I guess everyone has their barrow.
            This wasn’t meant to be a for or against climate change comment, purely a how to pick which companies/technologies to fund question.
            Like Giles said above, equity costs more, due to the investor taking on so much risk, they want equitable return on that risk and that normally takes the form of say 50% of the company, unlike an agency such as Arena which has a mandate to invest without needing a direct return. Is this high risk investing the best use of taxpayer dollars, you can make a case either way I feel. Hence my position that a reduction in available capital to invest to arena could be discussed a bit more rationally instead of it being sky falling down stuff.

          • wideEyedPupil

            But that’s the point, we have billions to throw at local & mostly foreign miners for zero innovation in established and end-of-era sectors like coal, but must cease even a scrap of investment in the future of a) a safe climate and b) technologies that will be in high demand for the next century. It would make great sense to actually commercialise a renewable technology in this country rather than send it off shore like all the UNSW solarPV work that the Sun King took with him to China when snubbed by governments. What’s a red herring about that? Learn your logical fallacies, Michael — you’ve already been schooled by Giles on finance.

  • Dylan Tusler

    I’ve been talking about CST projects for beyond Zero Emissions for several years now. I’m doing two of these talks tomorrow! And it will be nice to be able to report a little bit of progress on the Australian front for a change. Now, off to find some photos for my slideshow…

  • Ronald Brakels

    I just read another article on the site that says Germany has over 4,000 home energy storage systems installed. If they suceed in bringing down costs, and let’s face it they don’t have to bring down costs by much for it to be worthwhile in Australia, it could definitely hurt the economics of thermal solar plus storage by reducing the value electricity provided in the evening. For CSP to succeed in Australia we may need much higher feed in tariffs for rooftop solar so people will have less of an incentive to install home energy storage. Lower grid electricity prices would also help. Be sure to let me know when we get them.

    • Zvyozdochka

      Our transitional grid will have both features. We’re stuck with a grid for years to come as the investment has been so very heavy.

      CST-plant with storage is very low tech too using low cost bulk materials. High take-up rates on bulk storage batteries may be problematic.

      It’s an interesting point actually, because the current encumbent industry could choose to replace their baseload models with CST and stay in the game, or they will be bounced out by forms of storage if they try to leverage access to the grid.

      Also, a visionary future Australian Desertec-type project selling bulk electricity to Asia would need extremely cheap-CST.