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Hewson’s enthusiasm for solar towers is welcome, but wild claims are not

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John Hewson has been an amazing campaigner for renewable energy and strong climate action in this country – challenging politicians, bankers and industry to take climate action seriously and embrace the need for a dramatic energy transition.large_m1725347

His proposal for a major solar tower and storage power plant in Port Augusta is also welcome, and he is right to suggest that one day Australia’s energy system will not be powered by fossil fuels, but by a mixture of renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydro, with a major contribution from solar tower and storage.

Welcome too, is the apparent bi-partisan support Hewson managed to gather at the launch of the Solastor project in Adelaide. Environment minister Greg Hunt was there, so too was opposition spokesman Mark Butler, as were South Australian premier Jay Weatherill and climate change minister Ian Hunter.

All, apparently, were captured by the glowing promise of the Solastor technology – the world’s cheaper 24/7 solar power, eventually at 4c/kWh, cheaper than solar PV, and a plant ready to be built in Port Augusta by 2018, with no subsidies needed, not even an off take agreement.

But there is one major problem. It all sounds too good to be true. The claims and projections made by the SolaStor team stretch the point of credibility. Is it really possible to build a 170MW solar tower and storage project – with some 1,700 towers – in 2018 from scratch? And at the cost they claim, with the reliability they assert.

Truth is, we don’t know. Solastor might have got their numbers down pat, this may well be the great breakthrough in solar technology – using huge lumps of graphite to store energy reflected from the sun – that the world has been waiting for.

solastor gas claims

But what raises the red flags is Solastor’s claims about the competition. In their rush to promote themselves, over and above their apparent competitors, presumably including SolarReserve’s 110MW solar tower and storage plant, the Solastor people have made some claims that are simply not true.

Take, for instance, the claims about rival big solar towers being “bird killers”, that molten salt storage technology is a “fire risk”, and that it relies heavily on gas generation.

Such claims are plucked from the fossil fuel doubters of renewable energy and the press that support them. But both the SolarReserve 110MW facility in Nevada, and Gemasolar’s long running 20MW facility in Spain – the only two large scale operating solar tower and storage plants – disprove these claims.

They do not need gas, and they do not use gas back-up power; Gemasolar’s facility has turned into a bird sanctuary, not a killing field, and SolarReserve has proved its technology is not a “death-ray”; and when pressed Solastor couldn’t provide an example of a “fire risk.”

I asked Solastor’s executive director Steve Hollis, a former coal industry executive and former CEO of Snowy Hydro, and fellow executive director Philip Hall about these claims.

Of the need for gas generation? “That is the information we received,” they said.

Of the bird kill? “That’s what we read in the press.” Of the supposed threat to pilots, also cited, and also disproven? Same source.

For goodness sake. The last thing that the industry needs is the repetition of media myths. Solastor might have been better served comparing themselves with coal plants. On their proposed numbers, they beat existing coal plants on cost as well, and thrash gas by some distance.

Solastor even repeated the fossil fuel talking point about “intermittent” solar and wind needing “like for like” back-up from fossil fuel generation, suggesting that this is not factored into the cost of wind and solar.

Again, this is a misrepresentation. In South Australia, wind and solar are providing nearly 50 per cent of demand without the need for any more “back-up” fossil fuel generation than was already built to “back up” and supplement “reliable” “base load” coal power. In fact, a lot of the back-up generation has been switched off.

Many in the solar thermal industry are appalled – not by Solastor’s ambition, but by the needless claims made to justify their presentation.

“We’re trying to get this industry going, not trying to kill each other. It’s very disappointing,” said one person involved in the solar thermal industry.

Another said: “There is certainly a lot of nonsense in their documents. A bit of a shame really as I do think the technology could have good potential.”

solastor myths

Of particular note was Solastor’s claimed capacity factor, producing 1.2 million megawatt hours from a plant running at 110MW in winter and 170MW in summer. That equates to a capacity factor of nearly 98 per cent.

“That is a bit silly,” said one expert, noting that not even “baseload plants” such as the most reliable nuclear and coal don’t run at more than 90 per cent. “Getting an actual 100% capacity factor would however be near impossible with any storage technology.”

And who needs baseload anyway? SolarReserve and Gemasolar’s technology is based on being “dispatchable”, which means an ability to provide power when needed by the grid operator, or by the customer.

In a modern renewable energy system, such as South Australia’s, when rooftop solar PV provides all of demand on some days within the next decade, that means filling in the gaps, not providing baseload.

“The market doesn’t need baseload and it (baseload) doesn’t provide the best return on investment. A system configured as a medium/peaker targeting evening loads is most valuable. Salt systems can as easily be built with 15 hours storage for baseload also if that is wanted.”

Solastor’s claims on costs also raised some eyebrows. It claims “molten salt” costs $180/MWh. The molten salt storage people have already suggested their technology is well below $150/MWh. Solar PV is likely to be significantly below $370/MWh even when paired with battery storage.

So how does Solastor get to 4c/kWh? Hollis says it’s because the company’s heliostats are about 50 per cent more efficient than its rivals. That means significantly lower capital costs. That means lower cost per kWh. He was absolutely certain that his numbers are right.

Let’s hope so too. The last thing that the industry needs right now is for silly claims to be made that can only lead to disappointment. That would send the whole industry backwards.

Keith Lovegrove, a solar thermal expert at ITPower, said his experience with energy technologies in general and CST in particular is that system scale-ups with size increases by factors of 10 at each step are the sensible path.

“If Solastor can build and prove the 1MW pilot system in Australia then they could move forward from there. Talk of power stations in the 100’s of MW takes some years to develop,” he noted, adding that private sector finance needed for utility-scale systems looks to see that a technology has been proven and ‘derisked’ at a smaller scale before investing.

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“Solastor have a great technology idea with strong potential, but they will need to avoid the trap of over-selling in the early stages that many others have fallen into,” Lovegrove said.  “They should also be careful about making unduly negative claims about the incumbent molten salt approach, which is actually extremely effective.” Others in the industry made similar points.

Oliver Yates, the CEO of the Clean Enegy Finance Corporation, said he was a supporter of solar thermal technologies, and was keen to see technology costs move down the curve. He noted nearly every player in the market had been to see him or his team.

Yates would not comment on Solastor’s claims, other than to say – in reference to the recent cost curve fall in solar PV in particular: “One things I’ve learned is not to have a closed mind.”

So, if the CEFC does throw some money into the ring, and if there is, as Hewson suggests, a bank willing to fund the entire project, let’s hope they are doing some due diligence.

We don’t need any more failures like we had in the Solar Flagships disaster and the other “favoured” projects from the government-selected grant-making that characterised the failed wave power, Whyalla “solar dish” and geothermal projects. The future is more important than that.  

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  • howardpatr

    Seems to be very sound advice – perhaps John Hewson needs to be wary about his political tendencies. Would be good to know more about the pilot project developed by Lloyd?

    • Matthew Wright

      It’s been a huge let down to date – the stuff basically hasn’t been proved in Australia. However I don’t have updated information on there efforts in China. I still smell some snake oil. I think it’s performance is likely to be sub-par when compared to molten salt power towers. I remember everyone getting excited about Brightsource the Israel-US developer and now look at that – it’s turned into a complete balls up and production is no where near projected. Molten salt power towers – Gemasolar and Tonophah are the product of 30 years of US DoE and European solar thermal research. In any case those companies are now hybridising with Solar PV as they realise there niche is to fill the molten salt battery day in day out and sell that dispatchable power which competes with solar PV + chemical batteries. That’s where this tech is in the money.

      • Alistair Spong

        I thought brightsource at ivanapah was hitting it’s production targets after a slow start –

  • Carl Raymond S

    So, is there a real advantage to using graphite block c.f. molten salt? Does it do an equally good job with less mucking about? Is it a material we happen to have laying around? It’d be cool to discover that Australia used the pencil, while elsewhere they were busy inventing the zero gravity ballpoint.

  • Mike-at-goodbyegrid

    I think that running trains uphill with daytime generated solar power and downhill to release energy at night or in inclement weather is a cheaper solution (If you have the required incline, that is…)

    • Brendan Lee

      This is completely impractical. You need to lift thousands of tonnes by hundreds of meters to store even a few megawatt hours.

      • Andrew Thaler

        which we already do with pumped Hydro. 1000 litres of water = 1 tonne.

        • Brendan Lee

          Yes. This works because the water can flow in a pipe and fill a reservoir of any shape or volume. Dragging rock filled railcard up a hill is a very different ball game.

  • solarguy

    With Molten salt storage you can design as much storage as you need, days and days in fact. But with graphite siting on a tower there would be a limit unless it can be positioned on the ground. Solar Reserve has bid I thought for a plant in Chile, quoting 3 or 5 cents/kwh.

  • Alastair Leith

    Have huge respect for Hewson as he stands out on the conservative side of politics and finance capitalism side of economics as a guiding light on Climate Action. But this lowered his colours significantly. Repeating dumb myths about competitors in your own press material just because you read something in the MSM is ridiculous and indicates they actually don’t understand their industry as well as they might like to have us believe.

    Frankly it stinks and it was fitting that Greg Hunt was on hand to smile along like the climate and environment snake oil salesman he is.

  • David K Clarke

    I just hope that Hewson, who I have had great respect for to this time, is not raising people’s hopes only to have them dashed if the system disappoints. If it is as good as claimed, great; if it crashes it will harm the renewable energy industry, which is making steady progress.

  • Gary Rowbottom

    The Solastor technology looked pretty good, I will come up with some more questions for them myself, but haven’t thought of any technical roadblocks. I can’t speak for their numbers but they have confidence in them (based on global purchasing strategy). Of course the main issue is a project of 170 MW scale of this technology has not been done before. The modularity of the system helps remove some of the importance of stepping up through all the size ranges you otherwise need to do, but that same modularity feature maybe could give rise to issues in itself (though I can’t think of anything too specific thus far). I didn’t like the claims against more traditional molten salt systems either in that tabled info, I don’t like the industry attacking itself. Build them both, the cost difference between the two is not so great. To the extent I have had time to think about it, there may be some more flexibility in dispatch advantages with the graphite block storage. I am sure engineering/commercial due diligence will be applied by whoever is supplying the money. I also like Matthew Wright’s idea of having PV and CST inside the same fence (like Solar Reserve’s Copiapo) for the traditional molten salt systems, mostly for finance risk/cost reasons as Matthew explained to me once. The current Solar Reserve proposal for Port Augusta didn’t lend itself to that as the plant config was developed to meet the 481 GWh/yr of the SA Governments EOI. I don’t think combined CST/PV would add value to the Solastor system, at the numbers put up.

  • Ian

    ‘Due diligence’, sums up this Port Augusta solar thermal and storage issue very well . Giles, your article is on the money.

    One of the apparent shortcomings of South Australia’s energy mix is the need for the interconnector to Victoria. That’s not a shortcoming its a distinct advantage. Having connections to other areas increases reliability, the interconnector reduces the need for ‘ baseload ‘. Other isolated towns are not so fortunate, namely remote towns like Alice Springs or Coober Pedy. Why are they not using this technology first in those places?

  • I concur with your analysis Giles; this is clearly an exaggerated sales pitch. In particular the claim of 98% CF, when they claim the graphite can only stay hot enough for up to a week. Solar Reserve claims 40% cf when the salt tanks only lose 1 degree a day. Also the $180/ MWh for SR’s MS is much overstated; they have a PPA with a Nevada utility for $130/ MWh.

    Using the SEN SIREN software, I modeled 6400 MWh of CST with 10 hours storage, in WA. Remember this is 10 hours at maximum generation capacity. Therefore it will store more energy than is generated even on a summers day.
    The 6400 MW generates enough energy (21,437,813 MWh) to supply 116% of the WA (SWIS) electricity consumption in that year.
    But even with this amount of generation there were 80 nights during the year when the stored energy was not sufficient and up to 100% of the energy would have to come form other sources (fuelled generation). The reason is that in the previous day (s) there was little or no generation. In some cases all of the 16 arid locations modelled were clouded over, and unlike PV, CST does not generate at all under cloud.

    Although SIREN does not model the graphite technology, the same would hold true for any CST as it is all basically mirrors focusing on a heat containing material.

    So 80 nights and some days of insufficient to zero generation over a whole dispersed grid is over a year is nowhere near 98% capacity factor. In fact when CST is the only renewable energy source for a grid, there will have to be fast response OCGT gas turbine capacity sufficient to cover all of the load on some nights (in this case about 2500 MW).

    Giles if you like I can do an article on this and include the graphs to illustrate it.

  • Andrew Thaler

    Time for a truth bomb.. posted on the other RE article as well. but repeated here FYI:

    Sorry to John Hewson. He and I had a chat on Saturday morning at the Goulburn community energy launch.. where he also spruiked this solar thermal project.

    Solarstor have been my industrial neighbour in Cooma for around 7 years or so now- I own the ugly scrap yard next door to it. They have chewed through Millions and Millions of grant dollars $5 mil of country energy, kicked them off after their forays into ‘clean-coal’ with Bob Lloyd (before he was booted out).. and with very little output of practical use. Their original tower unit used graphite from Aluminium refining anodes (full of fluorine) and did not work as promised. I watched them smash several generations of heliostats (mirrors) and also burn holes on the fence between us (very not happy about that). My workers laughed one day when they melted the bottom of the heat collector and had raining molten-metal onto the ground.. not very safe.

    They built their tower in the wrong place from their DA and we are lucky it didn’t fall over in the strong winds we get.

    The Lake Cargelligo system they built,, comprising 5 or so tower-heliostat fields, which was later named Graphite Energy.. has (to my knowledge) NEVER produced and exported a single kWh to the grid. It is a large white elephant. This company name was changed to ‘isolator’ just after this white elephant was built and it is my information that they cut0and-run from the project when it failed.

    The Cooma development site has NEVER raised steam and produced a single kWh of electricity to export to the grid.. and for the money involved I see this as an enormous failing.

    My 20kW solar array on the roof of my factory has done more to reduce carbon emissions that Solarstor have.

    Even more weird is the link between John Hewson and this company.. and the hype around this promise of cheap energy 24/7 for SA.. My thoughts on this are that Steve Hollis conned Hewson into investing and the only way out for Hewson is to pump up the project ‘potential’ and then dump his investment in it while the hype is bubbling and walk away before it fails, like their other projects.

    Solarstor have been one continual disappointment.. invest in it at your own risk. I’ll stick to PV thanks.

    • howardpatr

      Thanks for the information.

      It is time for Giles to invite John Hewson to write a reply.

      John Hewson, who I have great respect for over his efforts relating to climate change and renewable energy, faces a real challenge to his credibility if he does not respond. I guess his problem might be that if he does respond he might be forced to confront issues raised by Andrew Thaler – catch 22 John.

      • We have invited Hewson to speak to us, indeed we had an appointment to speak to him. But we have since been told he refuses to speak to us because of the questions we raised and the things we wrote.

        • howardpatr

          Seems this needs to be nipped in the bud before we have Solastor taking investors to the cleaners.

          The following link is useful:-

          http://www.energybusinessnews.com.au/energy/solar/council-no-to-20m-morawa-solar/

          John Hewson needs to come up with some verifiable facts before he does much more spruiking – he should leave that sort of activity to Hunt.

          Butler and Weatherall might be well advised to get some professional advice before being sucked in?

        • JeffJL

          Shame Dr Hewson. Shame.

          If Barnaby Joyce can go on Q&A, Dr Hewson could make it here.

          Shame.

  • From Matt Parmeter, who struggled with DisQus.

    here is an existing 3 MW graphite energy storage solar power plant in Australia.

    It is at Lake Cargelligo, in NSW.

    The technology works. It is proven.

    It has been there for about 5 years or so.

    See http://reneweconomy.com.au/2013/solar-energy-in-the-australian-outback-at-8ckwh-44381

    Like many solar energy proposals that are made, the technology works / the technological problems are able to be dealt with.

    Actually having Government put some funds into a project and have it built is far and away the biggest problem. Politicians are very willing to talk about solar; but precious few funds are spent, even if they are allocated in federal budgets.

    Remember your history – the Solar Flagship Program.

    The promise : 1000 MW, over 6 years (2009-2015), $1.50 B government funding, in 4 power plants (2 x PV; 2 x CST).

    The reality : ~ 220 MW, over 6 years (2009-2015), ~ $0.33 B government funding, in 3 power plants (3 x PV; 0 x CST).

    Concentrating solar thermal plants could readily be built, at a pilot scale or larger scale. They could have been built anytime over the last 5 years. They can be built now.

    If there is a will to build them.

    http://reneweconomy.com.au/2016/will-government-key-energy-access-31617

    • Andrew Thaler

      My information is that the Lake cargelligo plant has not generated. It might ‘work’ but is has not produced and exported any ‘energy’s electricity to the grid. I’d like to be proven wrong.. because that would be great news, though I think I’m correct.

  • howardpatr

    Solastor needs to produce information comparable to that provided by Vast Solar. See the following link:-

    http://www.vastsolar.com/documents/Vast%20Solar%20Short%20Intro%20Oct%202015.pdf

    There is the challenge for John Hewson and Steve Hollis.

    • Andrew Thaler

      Hollis is a snake oil salesman.. he cannot satisfy your question without resorting to utter bullshit.

  • howardpatr

    John Hewson, where is a comparable report from Solastor?

    http://arena.gov.au/files/2015/09/Vast-Solar-Dissemination-Report.pdf