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Hewson’s unexplained attack on molten salt storage for solar

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John Hewson has launched an extraordinary attack against the main solar thermal technologies that most experts expect to lead Australia to a zero-carbon energy system, saying that the technology is out-dated and nearly “unbankable”.

solastor

The former opposition leader, who has become a prominent campaigner for climate action and renewable energy, made the comments in his new role as executive chairman of Solastor Australia, which he boasts has developed the world’s cheapest 24/7 solar technology, using graphite as its storage medium.

But his comments about rivals, particularly a competing 110MW project using molten salt storage technology, have raised alarm bells in the industry, and caused fears that he could set the sector back rather than forwards.

It also comes as new details emerge about the mixed record of his group’s own projects, and the status of the technology that was once described as an “expensive way to boil water.”

At the launch of Solastor’s proposed 170MW project in Port Augusta on Tuesday, Hewson was damning about his competition, comparing molten salt storage technologies to the all-but-redundant Blackberry, describing them as inefficient and expensive, and saying they would be difficult to finance.

Standing next to South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, who will make a decision in coming weeks on whether to issue a contract for SolarReserve’s 110MW solar tower with molten salt storage project in Port Augusta, Hewson told reporters:

“It (molten salt technology) is getting close, I’m told, to being unbankable … it has a lot of inefficiencies. It is much more expensive.”

His comments about costs have raised eyebrows, considering that a 50MW project proposed by SolarStor in Cyprus is forecast by his own company to have similar costs to a 110MW SolarReserve project in South Africa.

But the fact that Hewson has attacked the rival technology in the middle of a funding round being conducted by the South Australia government, and ahead of promises by both the federal Coalition and Labor to prioritise solar thermal projects in the new government, has raised concerns.

As Opposition climate and energy spokesman Mark Butler said at the launch, Australia has been trailing the world on the implementation of solar thermal technologies. “One of the disappointing facts has been failure of solar thermal technologies to get a foothold in Australia,” he said. “It looks like that is finally happening.”

Or maybe not. Solar thermal is considered to be a key technology in the coming energy transition, and critical to 100 per cent renewable energy scenarios considered and proposed by the likes of the Australian Energy Market Operator, the Institute of Sustainable Futures, UNSW, Beyond Zero Emissions and WWF.

But all the solar thermal storage projects being proposed in Australia, indeed the world, apart from Solastor’s, would use molten salt storage, and most propose to use the big solar towers vilified by Hewson’s company.

Hewson’s attacks didn’t stop at labelling the competition unbankable and inefficient. The company’s documents, as we revealed on Tuesday, also claimed that solar towers, and SolarReserve’s in particular,  killed birds. He also said the technology was a threat to pilots, was a fire risk, and required gas generators to back up the plant and heat up the salt. All those claims are firmly rejected, and have dismayed supporters of the proposed solar tower projects in the Port Augusta area.

Hewson’s suggestion that molten salt is a dead technology also goes against evidence that shows numerous molten salt storage facilities, pared with both parabolic trough and solar towers, being contracted and financed in South America, South Africa and Morocco.

These involve the Spanish companies Sener and Abengoa, and the US company SolarReserve, which last year built the 110MW Tonopah solar tower and molten salt storage facility, and also also signed a memorandum of understanding with Shenhua to build 1,000MW of similar plants projects in China. It has a contract to build a plant in South Africa at around US12c/kWh.

All these companies, including Vast Solar, an Australian company that also uses solar tower and molten salt technology, and is planning to build a 30MW facility at Jemalong in NSW, are exploring project opportunities in Australia.

By comparison, the record of Solastor – both overseas and in Australia, has been mixed at best, with projects either not proceeding or delayed. Solastor Australia is jointly owned by Solastor Pty Ltd and Momentum Energy & Resources, and has the rights to the technology in Australia.

In early 2012, Solastor won up to $3.5 million in state funding to help finance a small 1.5MW plant in the Midwest region of Western Australia. We wrote about it here, and the press release is here, but the project never happened.

Karen Chappel, the mayor of Morawa shire, where the project was to be based, said the project was dropped because the costs had “blown out from $16 million to $24 million. “It was too big for a small council like ours,” she told RenewEconomy this week. “It had merit, but it also needed diesel backup. It was beyond our means.”

Solastor’s joint venture partner in that project, Perth-based Carbon Reduction Ventures, agreed that the project foundered when the council withdrew support, although CEO Robert Coltrona told RenewEconomy this week that this was the fault of council for wanting a bigger system.

CRV then proposed to use the technology in a “hybrid” system to trap waste heat for use in a WA mine, but that also fell through, Coltrona said, when finance could not be obtained. “We were seeking someone to vendor finance it, but we couldn’t find any.” He said he liked the technology. “The principal makes a lot of sense. It is efficient in storing heat. That was why we put in a lot of time and resources.”

eos brochureTwo European projects are also yet to see the light of day. A 25MW project in Cyprus, the EOS Thermal Solar Project, was said to have begun earth works in early 2012, and a glossy brochure posted in February, 2012, (you can still see it here), asked investors to pay  €10,000 euros to join a syndicate funding what was then described as a €296 million project, and promised all the money back and overall profits of €656 million ($A1 billion) over the life of the project.

RenewEconomy can find no further reference to that project, although the links remain. Confusingly, the brochure claimed the project would involve two 25MW plants, with one as back-up. However, with the same partners, Alfa Mediterranean Enterprises and and Vimentina, Solastor then won a European Investment Grant in March, 2014, under the NER300 program for a 50MW plant in the same area.

The project received press in CSP Today in April, 2014, in the Greek press in June, and in the Cyprus press in September, where Alfa Medierranean’s Andreas Ioannou suggested the plant would begin construction in November, 2014, begin producing electricity in 2016 (at a cost of 13 Euro cents an hour, after a 60 million euro grant, and be fully complete in 2017.

STELIOS-HIMONAS-1

Picture courtesy of In-Cyprus

That didn’t happen. This NER300 project update document (see page 6) suggests the project, along with others, has been granted a “grace period” extending its allowed deadline to between 2020 and 2025. According to this local media report, Alfa took legal action against the head of the Cyprus department of energy, Stelios Himonas, (right) who suggested that funding be reduced if the plant could not meet production targets in the allocated time.

The CSP Today article – quoting an un-named Solastor source, also made mention of projects in Oman (7.5MW) and Chile (5MW) which the company had been working on. The EOS Cyprus project page also makes mention of these projects, but no further reference can be found.

(RenewEconomy sought comment and clarification on all these projects by email and phone from Solastor Australia, but has received no response. RenewEconomy been informed by Hewson that the company will not talk to us after we challenged the claims made by Solastor against molten salt technologies, namely that it had killed birds, was a fire risk and required back up gas generation.)

Solastor Australia’s presentation slides delivered on Tuesday, and posted on its web-site, makes mention of the 50MW Cyprus project, which it says will now begin construction in 2016. It also cites a 60MW project in Crete, without providing further information.

Neither the Cyprus nor the Crete project, nor for that matter its Chinese demonstration plant mentioned below, appears in the solar thermal project database run by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, considered to be the world’s most comprehensive.

solastor comparisonsThe Solastor presentation also provides this comparison (above) between the Cyprus project and SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes project. But SolarReserve says its capital costs were $US730 million, not $US1 billion, and it is on the public record that it is contracted to supply power to Nevada utility at $US135/MWh.

In any case, says Dylan McConnell, from the Melbourne Energy Institute,  it is very unusual to describe installed cost based on a single year’s output. He also queried the company’s claimed 98 per cent capacity factor.

Another expert said such projects assessments were “non standard” – costs were usually estimated over life-time of the project, or the upfront cost per unit of capacity, not output. But the key was in the delivered price, and the cost of the power purchase agreement.

In Chile, molten salt technology projects have been bid below $US100/MWh by Abengoa and Dubai last week said it was expecting bids of less than $80/MWh for the first round of its 1,000MW of CSP projects (with molten salt storage).

The one SolaStor graphite block project that has operated for a period of time is the 3MW Lake Cargellico plant in western NSW, which used the original patented technology, and which is cited in the Solastor presentation.

In 2013, at an international symposium on solar thermal technology at the CSIRO in Newcastle, Gary Braddock, the chief operating officer of Graphite Power, the company running the plant, described the technology as an “expensive way to boil water.”

He said that unlike other CSP technologies, such as molten salt storage, graphite did not have the cost structure to be able to install stand alone plants. Like CRV’s Coltrona, he thought the technology would be useful supplying waste heat to mines and other remote locations.

Clearly, something has changed in the last few years that has enabled the technology to morph from an “expensive way to boil water” to become the cheapest source of 24/7 solar power in the world, as Hewson and Solastor now claim, and to give them confidence to propose a stand-alone plant of 170MW in Port Augusta, without subsidy, without a contract, and with a single bank reportedly ready to finance the lot.

solastor pilot plantThe company says it has improved the design of its towers, and achieved a significant lift  in the efficiency of its heliostats (mirrors). Less heliostats, it notes, means less capital cost.

Solastor also says it has licenced its technology to a “major Chinese corporate” which it says has been operating a 5MW demonstration plant next to a factory in China since early last year. It does not name its partner, the name of the factory or the location, and it does not provide data on how it has performed. It offered a series of photos of that plant in its media materials, including this one to the right. Again, RenewEconomy asked for further details but none were provided.

Certainly, the technology has captured the imagination of the politicians who were drawn by Hewson’s political cachet to be in Adelaide for the launch.

Butler said it was “great technology”, federal environment minister Greg Hunt said this technology would “provide the pathway” to South Australia becoming the “solar state”. Premier Weatherill described it as a “fantastic piece of technology, that will allow South Australia to take a leadership role.”

solastor funding

hunt solastorThe Solastor document (excerpt above) says that the project already “has the financial support” of the federal government. That’s not quite right – as both the CEFC and ARENA confirmed to RenewEconomy – but Hunt (tweeting enthusiastically at right) also said he would facilitate talks with the CEFC and had already “commended” the project to the chairs of both the CEFC and the new Clean Energy Innovation Fund, which will come into being in July.

The number crunchers, however, are still scratching their heads about the cost claims made by Solastor. And there are questions about the ambitious timeline. Solastor wants to build a 1MW pilot plant by the end of the year, but it hasn’t yet secured the land, let alone other approvals.

It suggests a full 170MW plant, with 1,700 modules and 1,700 blocks of 10-tonne graphite on top of 1,700 23m towers, surrounded by computer controlled heliostats, can be be built by 2018. Hewson says the company already has one bank prepared to finance the whole project. The company says it will source its steel, glass and graphite from overseas.

If delivered as promised, it would be fantastic news for them, and for the rest of Australia. But experts such as Keith Lovegrove, say that proof will likely come over time, first with 1MW, then 10MW, then perhaps at the scale that Hewson envisages. Most banks will be keen to examine the results of each stage.

In the meantime, the presentation has left something of a sour taste. RenewEconomy has spoken to more than a dozen NGOs, analysts, energy experts, industry representatives, Port Augusta locals and competing technologies, and all are shocked by Hewson’s aggressive assault on his rivals.

“We are not wanting to raise expectations falsely,” Hewson said at the launch on Tuesday. But by attacking his rivals, Hewson has created fears that the biggest loser could be the industry, just at the point it was hoping to flourish. They wonder what his motives are.

“It was disappointing,” said one invitee at the launch, who did not want to be identified because of the “difficult situation” he found himself in.

“We want both projects to succeed. But if this is the one that gets up and it falls flat – it could stuff the whole industry.”

(And, of course, RenewEconomy would be delighted to have the opportunity to speak to Hewson).

(NB2: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Andreas Ioannou).  

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  • barrie harrop

    Sounds like revisit of the past.
    The “birthday cake interview” was a famous political interview in Australia that was carried out between interviewer Mike Willesee and Liberal Party Opposition Leader Dr. John Hewson shortly before the 1993 federal election. It is remembered as the interview which contributed to Hewson’s failure to win the election because he was unable to explain one of his key tax policies on live television.

  • DevMac

    When I’ve heard John Hewson speak on matters climate he’s always been a breath of fresh air from that side of politics. It now appears that it could all be an act in pursuit of the promotion of “the solution that will fill my pockets” as opposed to “any solution that will contribute to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions”.

    Once a politician, always a politician?

    P.S. Molten Salt Storage is a new and relatively immature technology, to declare it dead based on a few potential negatives (which have varying degrees of validity) is very premature given that nuclear power wasn’t declared ‘dead’ after Chernobyl nor Fukushima. Issues get mitigated over time along with improving efficiencies. That’s progress.

    • Alastair Leith

      Once a LP leader always a LP leader…

    • JamesWimberley

      Really? The Gemasolar plant in Spain – a pilot but still a commercial-scale 20 MW – has been operating successfully since May 2011, five years. There are others, of which Crescent Dunes is only the most recent. It’s a very simple technology the Brunel could probably have set up in 1850. SolarReserve, ACWA and Abengoa are companies with track records of building big CSP plants that work. Solarstor is not in their league. It smells like Hanergy.

      • DevMac

        In the scale of coal, gas, and even nuclear power, 5 years isn’t very long. I’m talking in practical “in use” terms, using the technology in order to debug issues that crop up outside the lab.

  • Faulco Pete

    Recently we are starting to see renewable energy projects with supposed grid parity economics, around the world. While this is critically important to the transition from a fossil fuel global economy to one driven by renewable energy, to me it highlights a pathetic inadequacy in the human species. Namely, that we have only started moving in a substantive way to a sustainable future driven by renewable energy because of
    commercial considerations, rather than to preserve our life support systems and natural systems as a whole. Until now, too many greedy and global warming denying people were prepared to abandon the future of the descendants (while presumably at the same time telling them how much they loved them) while plowing on regardless into a fossil fuel Armageddon. A consequence of this is that those only interested in money jump on the bandwagon. Is Hewson one of those? I don’t know, but his political background makes it seem likely to me. It smacks of opportunism. The final straw with this project was seeing Hunt jumping on board and clearly claiming credit through association. Pardon me while I upchuck.

    • DevMac

      I agree entirely. My only caveat is that, with the amount of resistance to the idea that such a change is needed, it seems that humanity is only able to deal with this change slowly with an economic base reason to it. It’s depressing, but it’s human nature – we behave as we’ve been acclimatised.

      The reality that comes with this slow progress is that we might just hit the brick wall at 80km/h instead of 120km/h, so there may be more survivors than otherwise.

      • Alastair Leith

        yes, Climate Emergency calls for an Emergency Response. Telling people we can save the GBReef if we do A, B and C isn’t helpful. Telling the truth might be what people need to hear. They do it in medicine after all. This idea that people will just switch off and drink cocktails seems to be pretty much what most people are doing anyhow, at least we could have an honest political and economic conversation.

    • Alastair Leith

      I attended an explainer in Perth by finance industry Carbon watchers who had attended the Paris talks (and according to themselves provided the Australian Government with much advice). It was very obvious this presenter had no idea how impossible halting the global air temp. anomaly at +1.5º C is, even with much more radical emissions reductions strategies and transformational responses than the incremental carbon pricing and most importantly for them *trading* which they prefer. Was very clear all many of the attendees could see was dollar signs. Sad.

  • JeffJL

    If Solastor will not come on a site like this to answer questions then there is something fishy about them.

    Keep up the good work Giles.

  • solarguy

    Jay Weatherill’s government would be best advised to stay clear of Solarstor’s dodgy proposal.
    Solar Reserves technology is proven and should bee chosen!
    Something very wrong with Solastor and perhaps Hewson, could even be an LNP right wing solar trap, to try and prove solar is rubbish, as the FF industry would love that, wouldn’t they and are likely behind this!

    Yep, I smell a con job!

    • hydrophilia

      My thought as well. One might wonder if the coalition politicians are on board to show willing, then regretfully will shake heads when it fails and say that this just shows renewables are not ready….

      • solarguy

        Good to have a fellow thinker on board!

    • mike flanagan

      Once a bankster, always a bankster

      • solarguy

        Yeah,that’s the disappointing thing about Hewson, he has been a good champion of RE.

        • mike flanagan

          Yes I think he has been given a fair bit of latitude by the environmental movement in recognition of his efforts in the Climate Change debate. Giles’ article is to be commended for its exposure and reminder of his darker side.

    • Alastair Leith

      I think Hewson has shown his commitment to Climate action with his Carbon Disclosure project — so a trojan horse for deniers looking to sink big solar in this country I think to be most unlikely. One more yobo entrepreneur who roped in Hewson for the political contacts is much more likely.

      • solarguy

        Perhaps, but think of this, I was watching a panel on sky election channel late last night, GARNAUT, MADDIGAN, FAULKNER and others were on a panel chaired by Maxine McKew.
        The thing that got me was they all admitted that the FF industry had made huge donations to the Libs at every seat in order to sway them to see things their way. All of these people made these admissions and even Maddigan said he knew for years and was discussted at how corrupt things are.
        I’m not saying Hewson is one of them, but after this admission by pollies keep an open mind on corporate lobbying.

        The question has to be asked as to why Hewson was flogging Solarstor, while being so negative of competing CST technology. Maybe John can enlighten us.

  • Mark Roest

    I’m reminded of two people:

    A self-professed ‘business pirate’ I met in the mid-1970s, who said he always tried to deprive competitors of oxygen …

    and our likely Republican nominee, “he who shall not be named,” always on the attack against anyone who is not him, or one of his supporters.

  • Alan S

    It’s bad enough having constant attacks on renewables by coal and nuclear supporters without white anting from within. Perhaps Hewson is not ‘within’.
    One thing in his favour is that each tower supports about 10 T of graphite and there’s a significant stock of that here in SA – therefore he has the ear of Jay Weatherill

    • Roger Brown

      Solarstor said in the story , that they would source all steel, graphite ,and glass from overseas . Being a Old Liberal member , they don’t care about anyone but themselves and their rich mates .

  • Ian

    Thank you Giles for your follow up on this story. We cannot afford silly mistakes like this gambit of Hewson’s Solarstor. A lot of people have put a tremendous amount of work into driving a carbon free energy economy and the results are starting to show. South Australia is at the forefront of a coal free network and into uncharted territory for Australia. They don’t need to lose their way with a potential Fiasco.

    • DevMac

      But don’t discount this “gambit” just because of bad-mouthing the alternatives. If this technology is good, then it should be pursued.

  • Foggydogbreath

    That story was waaay too long.

  • Geoff

    mmmmmmmmm an ex leader of the LNP who is a director of a company that is trying to push for a technology that has not be properly proven nor is it independent? yeah I think not.
    best to stay well away from anything to do with the LNP

    • Ian Goss

      Hewson never led the LNP! That is a state party, and based in Queensland.

      • Geoff

        Actually Hewson was federal leader of the Liberal Party and Leader of the Opposition from 1990 to 1994. Sure no LNP back then but still leader of the liberals at the federal level…

        • Ian Goss

          Akshally (a thoruoghly redundant word), you are all over the place.

          Why did you call him an “ex leader of the LNP” in one post and then “federal leader of the Liberal Party”. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

          The LNP is a state party based in Queensland. Nationally-elected LNP members make up less than 25% of the Federal Coalition (22 out of 90 seats). And there are FOUR parties to the Coalition BTW.

          The Coalition could properly (and clumsily) be called “The LPA-LNP-NPA-CLP” but ppl like you prefer to call the Coalition after ONE of its constituent parts. Why?

          A part of the whole is NOT the whole—imprecise as all get out.

          • Geoff

            wow relax dude – sounds like you need an Enema!

          • Ian Goss

            Thanks for your random capitalisation.

            Two final words—‘lazy’, and ‘slack’.

  • Michael Rynn

    Nice to see a bun fight over which solar energy storage technology is better. This is much better than people still arguing over competition between fossil fuels like gas and solar. The article doesn’t give a hint of why the graphite heat storage block has the theoretical potential for more and cheaper storage than big tanks of molten storage. Differences in the possible number hours of practical generation from stored heat only are not discussed, as storage hours have an important role as part of connected electricity grid.
    Just thinking about it, having an awful large number of modules of graphite blocks atop towers does not seem quite as cheap as one central power tower. More plumbing is required for multiple modules, if they share one turbine.
    Energy capture is proportional to the total surface area of heliostats in either case. I do not know of any comparison of percent conversion of energy to electricity.
    Better comparisons should be in peer reviewed engineering publications, not the media battle slogans of loud mouthed CEOs.
    The scaling of cost per Mwh with size must work differently for the two technologies. Cost per MWh fall as capacity and field size increases for a Molten Salt power tower. Graphite block tower modular systems may have a different niche, maybe more at smaller scales, where molten salt becomes uneconomic. Blanket statements of overall superiority are inappropriate, when both technologies are still to benefit from the economies of scale that can result from mass production, and long term experience is lacking for graphite module systems.
    Readers of Renew Economy like myself would like to see in detail how a large scale modular graphite block tower system is supposed to operate, and how this alters the economics.

    • Chris Fraser

      I can understand the need to stay open minded on emerging technology … molten salt or water … that’s not a big thing for me. I just want experimentation at a reasonable cost even while political powers try to shut the whole CSP thing down.Wanting objective analysis is even harder in an era where the Climate Commission, ARENA, CSIRO and BOM are being starved of oxygen because of adverse political ideology. These CSP projects are at risk of being relegated to part-time indulgences for any philanthropic soul and University that puts their mind to it, or maybe crowdfunding. Very sad.

    • Alastair Leith

      How about Frenell’s flat mirror fresnel ‘dish’ style tech that runs the heat conduit the entire linear length of the mirrored field. That’s even more ‘plumbing’ and they are claiming cost parity with coal for a large plant >500MW in their white paper. They’ve actually got small scale units deployed already in the field and their thermal storage (or heat exchanger) IIRC is used in Crescent Moon. Maybe tower style CST isn’t the automatic winner after all.

      http://www.frenell.de/

  • Robert Comerford

    I thought Hewson a bright light from the conservative side of local politics, however his attack on competitors and lack of transparency to validate their claims has brought him well down in my estimations. Sad!

  • Mark Melocco

    Quote” It suggests a full 170MW plant, with 1,700 modules and 1,700 blocks of 10-tonne granite on top of 1,700 23m towers, surrounded by computer controlled heliostats, can be be built by 2018. Hewson says the company already has one bank prepared to finance the whole project. The company says it will source its steel, glass and graphite from overseas.”
    Granite or Graphite – Colour me confused

  • sunoba

    Based on my standard methodology, I estimate the LCOE for the Solastor project as AUD 112/MWh. However I have concerns that the graphite storage system is under-specified and that their claimed annual output is significantly too high. For details see today’s post at http://www.sunoba.blogspot.com. My view is that it would be a heroic stretching objective for an inexperienced company to build a 170 MW CST system by 2018.

  • uncle tungsten

    Hewson is frankly unbelievable. Has always been so and always will be so. I can imagine him getting behind one of those ‘run your car on water’ proposals that so enthused a previous infamous and stupid Queensland Premier. Thats the sort of Premier Hewson loves to entertain. Weatherill next because if you are thick enough to want to build a nuclear waste dump then you are thick enough for Hewson.