The Queensland government-owned coal generator CS Energy has pulled the plug on a troubled and protracted effort to add a 44MW “solar booster” to its Kogan Creek power station, likely bringing an end to any plans by the coal industry to use solar as a way to extend the life and reduce the emissions of their power plants.
CS Energy announced late on Friday that the $100 million project, which was to use solar linear fresnel technology to generate additional “clean steam” for the coal-fired generator near Chincilla in South West Queensland, would not be completed, even though nearly $40 million had already been spent.
The decision is not a surprise, given that the project had been at a standstill since late 2013 – because of “technical” difficulties now identified as issues with the solar thermal addition boiler tubes – and after the owner of the technology effectively walked away from it.
However, the decision has disappointed some in the solar industry, who described it as a “bloody good project” and one that should be completed, saying it had the potential to be a world leading solar facility. They questioned whether the issue of boiler tubes was indeed a “show-stopper.”
CS Energy chief executive Martin Moore said in a statement that the decision was made due to a number of “technical and contractual difficulties encountered during construction and the resultant negative impact on the project’s commercial prospects.
“We examined all possible options for the project but determined that the responsible course of action is to close the project down.
“The solar thermal addition could not be commercially deployed without substantial financial investment – and there is no prospect of ever getting a positive return on that investment. The business case for this project simply no longer stacks up.”
The compact linear fresnel reflector technology to be used in the project was invented by a team led by Australia’s David Mills, and sold to French nuclear giant AREVA when it made a major push into the global solar industry.
However, AREVA decided to exit the solar thermal basis in August, 2014, and withdraw its operations from Australia, so it could focus its efforts on its major delays and huge cost over-runs at its 3rd generation nuclear projects in Finland and France, a technology that has since forced a bailout by its French nuclear partner EdF.
The decision at Kogan Creek adds to a long list of project failures under the Renewable Energy Development Program, which allocated large sums of money to a group of ambitious projects that failed to develop.
The REDP program – largely chosen by Canberra bureaucrats – was subsequently managed by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which sought to make greater use of private industry experts. However, the Coalition has tried unsuccessfully to dismantle ARENA and to bring it back within department operations.
About $35 million of government funding was allocated to the Kogan Creek solar boost project, but only $6.4 million of ARENA money spent. Most of the other failed projects also drew down only small amounts of the allocated funds. CS Energy will write off $40 million spent on the project.
ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said ARENA’s role was to support the development of new renewable energy technologies and, while not all would be successful, each added to the energy industry’s knowledge and skills base.
“While it’s disappointing the Solar Boost project will not proceed, CS Energy and ARENA are actively working together to ensure the Solar Boost project contributes to industry knowledge on solar thermal technology,” Frischknecht said in a statement.
He said ARENA remains committed to the development and demonstration of solar thermal technologies in Australia, and had “a portfolio of active and completed solar thermal projects spanning from research and development to pilot-scale deployments.”
ARENA, or at least the politicians who make the final decisions on major investments, is/are being lobbied by solar thermal advocates in South Australia to provide funds for the country’s first large-scale solar tower project with molten salt storage.
Community representatives from Port Augusta want a 110MW solar tower and storage project proposed by US company SolarReserve to replace the large Northern coal-fired power plant that is due to be closed in May.
Ironically, Northern’s owners Alinta looked at the possibility of using solar thermal as a “boost” to help lower emissions from its power plants, but found that the technologies were incompatible. It also looked separately at a stand-alone solar thermal facility, but only at a smaller scale that it said it did provide an economic return.
The solar tower and molten storage project is different to compact linear fresnel reflectors in that it uses a single collector that can heat molten salt to high temperatures and allow energy to be stored to provide round-the-clock power, or to act as a peaking plant and provide electricity whenever the grid operator needs.
The Queensland solar boost project was to provide, in peak solar conditions, a 44MW solar thermal addition to the 750MW Kogan Creek coal-fired power station. It began construction in 2011, and thousands of mirrors and collectors were constructed locally. Work stopped on site in 2013.
Another solar boost installation, a 9MW (thermal) was added to the Liddell coal-fired generator in NSW, but has effectively been closed. Analysts say the incentive to use solar boost has also been reduced by the removal of the carbon price and excess coal supply.
Linear fresnel is still a “live technology”, with a major project operating in Spain, a large project under construction in India, and two projects proposed under China’s search for 1GW of solar thermal energy. Linear fresnel is said to be able to heat molten salt for use as storage.
CS Energy’s Moore said the technical and contractual issues with the project resulted in lengthy delays and significant commercial problems. He also said solar boost was no longer the right project or technology to advance CS Energy’s renewable energy future.
“The version of the technology in the Solar Boost project has become outdated in the years since the project’s inception as a result of advances in CLFR technology” Moore said.
“CS Energy will redirect its efforts to ensure that it is positioned to capitalise on the growing renewable energy market. We are already in discussions with a number of potential partners as to whether they could use the Solar Boost site.”
It is understood this includes talks with both international and local interests, including research groups, but it is not clear whether the talks include using the technology and facilities that have already been built, or as a “greenfields” site and to start anew with another project.
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