Solar thermal energy costs predicted to halve by 2020

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Days after US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu promised that large scale solar PV would be cheaper than coal and gas before the end of the decade – and a commercial solar PV project in New Mexico appeared to deliver on that very prediction – comes a forecast that the other key solar technology, solar thermal, will also halve its costs over the same time period.

One of the world’s leading experts on concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) technologies, Dr Manuel Blanco, says the cost of dispatchable solar thermal energy will fall to just 12/kWh by 2020. Dispatchable means that the energy can be delivered when the energy is needed, not just when the sun shines. This is achieved with energy storage.

The current cost of solar thermal technologies is estimated by the industry itself at around 25c/kWh, and Blanco’s predictions accord with those of an industry study last year, which predicted costs of 12c/kWh to 13c/kWh could be reached. That, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, makes it comparable with the cost of new coal-fired power stations.

However, those predictions for solar thermal are well below predictions from the government’s official forecasts, the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics, which predicts the technology will fall from current levels of around 30c/kWh to now lower than 20c/kWh by 2025. The solar thermal industry has already registered its disappointment with that assessment.

Blanco is joining the CSIRO as Director of the Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative, (ASTRI), an $87 million initiative that is designed to ensure that solar thermal is competitive with other renewable and traditional energy sources.

Blanco says Australia has one of the best solar resources in the world. “It is a natural fit for an international solar thermal research collaboration to use this resource and our expertise to make solar power the cheapest, cleanest energy source it can be,” he says.

“We will reduce the cost of solar thermal to just 12c/kWh by 2020 and provide zero-emission energy to people when they need it. It’s a technological leap but we will do it. We are working with the best in the world.”

CSP uses mirrors to focus sunshine to generate heat, which can be used to power a turbine to create electricity. These technologies can also be used to drive chemical reactions to produce solar derived products, such as fuels. C

Blanco was most recently the director of solar thermal energy department at Spain’s National Renewable Energy Centre (CENER), and is the chair of the executive committee of SolarPACES, the International Energy Agency Implementing Agreement on Solar Power and Chemical Energy Systems. He has played a leading role in most major CSPT R&D and demonstration projects undertaken in Europe in the last 25 years.  

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