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CSP: It needs a new way of thinking about energy

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A new report outlining the prospects of solar thermal energy has underlined its enormous potential for Australia, saying it could provide between a third and even one half of the nation’s energy needs, but notes it may require a new of thinking about energy production and delivery.

The report, entitled, “Realising the potential of Concentrating Solar Power in Australia”, says that solar thermal technology is behind wind energy and solar PV in terms of deployment and costs, but could play a critical role because it’s energy can be stored and dispatched when needed. Not only that, but Australia also as the potential to parlay its excellent R&D into a significant stake in the global supply chain, and it could even end up being an exporter of renewable energy, rather than just fossil fuels.

The report predicts that 2GW of solar thermal could be built by 2020, with 15GW deployed in the near to medium term. That would account for up to 30 per cent of the country’s total generation capacity. However, its potential could be even greater, if the best resources remote from the grid could also be tapped, it was conceivable that solar thermal could provide half of the country’s energy need by 2050.

Solar thermal is different from solar PV used in household rooftop systems because rather than using modules to generate electricity, solar thermal uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate solar energy onto a single point or linear receiver, and use that energy to create steam and drive a turbine. It also lends itself to storage, allowing energy to be dispatched at time of peak demand, or even overnight.

This report covers what is known as concenetrated solar power (CSP), which includes concentrated solar PV as well as solar thermal. Australia has been a leading innovator in CSP technology, with Ausra (now owned by Areva), pioneering the compact linear Fresnel reflector technology,  the ANU developing solar dish technology that will be used in the Whyalla Solar Oasis project, and numerous technology breakthroughs at the CSIRO solar facility near Newcastle. The first demonstration plant of Australian developed CPV technology will be unveiled in Bridgewater, Victoria, later this month.

However, the report, prepared by IT Power on behalf of the Australian Solar Institute, says that Australia could lose the opportunity to be a world leader if it did not set out a clear roadmap for the technology.

“With CSP exploiting its world-leading solar resources, Australia can claim a significant place in the global clean energy supply chain,” it says, noting that this is a unique opportunity because Australia does not hold such a stake in other clean energy alternatives. “Delaying action will see that opportunity missed,” it notes.

The CSP industry is confident it can follow the success of wind energy and solar PV and achieve a significant fall across the cost curve. The report estimates that the average cost of CSP is around $250/MWh (similar to some recent renewable auction bids in South Africa) but it argues that this can fall to $120-$130/MWh – where its ability to provide dispatchable power. (See separate story for explanation on costs).

The report says that CSP plants could be configured with or without thermal storage. This means that in the 15GW scenario, which would require minimum grid upgrades, the energy potential ranges between 25,000 and 60,000 GWh per year (equivalent to 8 to 20% of current annual electricity demand).

Its roadmap, see table below, suggests that Australia could reach the stage in a few decades when it is actually exporting electricity to Asia. As outlandish as this concept may be, such grids are being considered in Europe – where the Desertec Initiative is looking to export solar power from north Africa, and is now under discussion in Japan, which is looking to export solar and other renewable sources from Mongolia.

The report  says systems could be configured to offer combinations of immediate generation when solar is available (no thermal storage), energy on-demand using storage or co-firing, or continuous generation at lower power level using storage or co-firing.

The report lists CSP’s advantages as providing dispatchable energy, to complement other renewable energy sources with variable outputs, the ability to be integrated into existing new coal and gas power plants, and the fact that it need not compete for productive land or valuable water. It would create jobs – every 100MW of system would create around 500 job years during construction and 20 jobs during operation, mostly in regional areas – and 10 GW of capacity would reduce Australia’s emissions by roughly 30 Mt CO2 per year, or over 15% of electricity sector emissions.

But, the technology does face challenges, outlined in the table below. Mostly this is about finding the “value proposition” and delivering the right incentives to help bring the technology down the cost curve.

It suggests a series of measures, ensuring that financing is available for early deployment, the creation of solar-CSP precincts, and leverage its considerable R&D expertise, with a focus on targeting deployment of systems below 50 MW (overlooked by the global industry), incorporating energy storage, improving efficiency and hybridisation with fossil fuel plants, as well as using advanced cooling technologies.

However, Keith Lovegrove, one of the lead authors of the report, suggests that to fully embrace technologies such as solar thermal, policy makers and grid operators needed to move beyond the concepts and practices that had dominated the industry in recent decades, particularly the obsession with “baseload” and “peak-load” power.

“Baseload is only a term used by someone wanting to criticize something,” Lovergrove told RenewEconomy. “It’s basically an outmoded concept. It’s a term invented to keep some power stations busy.

“The thing about the energy future is to match supply to demand at all times. Smart meters will allow people to decide how to manage demand. People in the business of energy supply can decide how to manage that. CSP with storage is well suited to that.”

Lovegrove says there is enormous potential for CSP to come down the cost curve. But CSP did not need to match the current cost of “baseload” coal because it would not be competing in the same market. “The reason you would bother with CSP is that it is dispatchable, so the incentives we put in place should recognize that.”

  

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  • Andrew Thaler

    HVDC links to Asia is surely more of an “aspirational” target than reality. We can’t get our heap in a pile here, now, without imagining the improbable.

    There are a myriad of other ways of exporting the energy… couldn’t we could realistically export energy as Aluminium, Hydrogen, Liquid Air?

    And how about we start spending more money on Actual things rather than paying people to think about what we ‘could’ do.

  • Community Energy : From medium sized things big things can grow

    Access to clean energy, clean water and clean land are the fundamental underpinnings of a resilient future for communities across Australia and elsewhere.

    The Kimberley in North West Australia is a new energy frontier which offers the prospect of gas, oil and coal mining and processing as well as hydro, wind and in particular solar energy generation.

    Communities such as those in Broome are considering the long term implications of the different projects to determine those which best support long term sustainable community development.

    More recently the citizens of Broome have developed an interest in solar energy generation. Roof top solar already supplies 2 MW of power. Indeed the growth in solar has caused the local electricity retailer to limit the size of installations. From July 1st the government owned Horizon Power will halve its renewable energy buy back rebate to just 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

    Beyond the roof, consideration is now being given to a community solar project.

    In April and May many locals attended presentations from Beyond Zero Emissions and Rewgional Cleantech Solutions and have been inspired to investigate further the opportunity for a community solar generation that can partially offset an expansion in the current gas/ diesel combination. Both fuels are trucked up from Port Headland – 6 hours drive away.

    According to local business owner Craig Phillips “At a time of much turmoil and pain it is important to stop and think about the importance of our community and where the future will take us. Broome will always be here with or without a gas plant up the road so we need to make peace amongst ourselves. An environmentally friendly community solar farm may unite us for the benefit of everyone.”

    In Europe and North America there is an increasing movement towards community renewable energy projects which use a combination of co-operative shareholdings, government underwriting and flip schemes where corporate funding is used . Whilst of medium scale, community (as opposed to individual) generation projects bring with them multiple sociological benefits ; keeping income in the community; creating local jobs; demonstrating communities in control and civic pride; engaging populations in energy and carbon consciousness.

    In Australia the Hepburn wind farm project is the only community owned power generator but it has inspired other communities to have a go.

    Beyond a medium scale community project offsetting the some of the local energy usage, lies the prospect of exporting renewable energy to Indonesia.

    The famed Cable Beach is so named because it received the telegraph cable that connected Australia with Asia and the rest of the world. Whilst not yet being actively considered Big Solar is an alternative energy opportunity in the future.

  • Wikipedia says “CSP is being widely commercialized and the CSP market has seen about 740 MW of generating capacity added between 2007 and the end of 2010. More than half of this (about 478 MW) was installed during 2010, bringing the global total to 1095 MW. Spain added 400 MW in 2010, taking the global lead with a total of 632 MW, while the US ended the year with 509 MW after adding 78 MW, including two fossil–CSP hybrid plants”

    Surely with our new Clean Energy Future funding we could come up with one state of the art 10 MW demonstration plant? Even if it costs three times as much as, say, wind it’s still worth doing for R&D purposes. We’ve got to start somewhere. Why not form research alliances with the other world leaders Spain and the US?

    If Spain can do >600 MW with an economy in recession and GDP little larger than ours I wonder why we can’t at least get a 10 MW module up and running for starters. Such a module could be improved and mass produced, being deployed in multiples with existing fossil plants and other locations with HV transmission lines as costs come down. There are enough of the latter – thousands of km of HV line with cheap, sunny land – in the WA wheat belt alone to supply all of the SWIS grid power. Woody biomass from coppicing crops could be added for night time generation.

  • Concerned

    I have always had the view that a fair part of the billions paid out to import PV and subsidise same should be used for research through CSIRO and various Universitys, leading to demonsrtation plants.
    Imagine where we would be now.

    Little leadership or intelligent thinking so far from fickle and inward thinking politicians.
    No stategic policy at all.

  • David Rossiter

    Keith Lovegrove has hit the nail on the head – for too long we have had the concept of base load and peak load drummed into our heads. It really was a concept to utilise the electricity generating systems we had to fit a continuously varying load demand curve.

    Some of those generating systems were very responsive (storage hydro and gas turbines) and some slowly responsive (black coal fired steam generating plants) and others almost completely unresponsive (brown coal fired generating plants). All of them were firm energy plants. And run of river hydro was dispatched as and when it had water available as non-firm energy (use it or lose it energy).

    The non-firm energy plants were dispatched first, less responsive firm energy plants were dispatched next and the most responsive plants were used to match the load curve so the system always balanced at every instant of the day and night.

    Things are little different today except we now have wind and solar to date as non-firm energy (use it or lose it) as well as run of river hydro. But this report heralds the advent of a new era of firm energy (use it when you chose it energy) solar power from thermal storage of solar energy.

  • Concerned

    Andrew how correct.
    To give Dr Shi credit, he did go to the Federal Government for a loan/grant of $15 million to set up in NSW.
    The Federal Govt could not see that it was viable.(Ian Macfarlane I believe in particular)

    The Chinese Govt set him up with a new factory with a rent of $1 a year.He flies the Australian Flag outside his headquarters. (a joke?)

    This info was given in an interview on Four Corners a few years ago.

    I also believe MacFarlane had a similar view after a presentation by Mills of SH&P in about 2006.