Australia’s top science and research organisation, the CSIRO, has inked a deal with Chinese company Thermal Focus to make, sell and install its patented concentrating solar thermal generation technology in China.
The partnership is a major coup for the CSIRO, particularly considering the potential market for CST in China, which just last month was named by the IEA as one of the countries most likely to lead the world in a solar thermal boom that is expected to take off in the next five years.
China’s plans for CST – to build 1.4GW of capacity 2018, and 5GW by 2020 – will double the world’s installed CST plants, and the CSIRO deal puts its proven solar heliostat technology in a prime position to bid for a piece of this action.
But while this is undoubtedly a good news story for Australian solar R&D and for the CSIRO itself, the deal also highlights the fact that Australia remains well behind the pack on actually installing – or manufacturing – solar thermal technology on its own soil.
Australia’s solar thermal lag – as Giles Parkinson wrote last month – exists despite both the federal Coalition and Labor parties coming to the election with statements of support for solar thermal and storage.
And it also exists despite being “a proven renewable technology that provides flexibility benefits to power grids, especially when integrated with thermal storage,” as the IEA report pointed out.
CST also has the ability to follow closely the electricity demand profile during the day in regions with “high direct normal irradiance” – abundant in Australia – and provide firm peak, intermediate or base-load capacity.
As RE readers would know, CST technology works by using mirrors to focus the sun’s energy into a central collector, usually perched on a tower, which then stores the heat in tanks of molten salt and uses it to generate superheated steam to drive turbines for continuous electricity generation.
The CSIRO’s patented version of the technology – pioneered at its energy centre in Newcastle, NSW – uses smaller mirrors of about five square meters, known as heliostats, which makes it highly competitive and offers many unique advantages over other larger and more costly heliostat technologies.
“(Our low-cost high precision) heliostats can provide the concentrated power needed to heat molten salt in a receiver, but importantly, can also efficiently generate higher temperatures needed for the next generation of CST technologies,” a CSIRO spokesperson said.
“As such, they could be integrated into projects by the major developers. CSIRO and Abengoa Solar undertook an ARENA-funded feasibility study for just this application for a proposed project at Perenjori, WA.”
As yet, though – and not counting the demonstration solar power tower at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle, or the CSP tower power plant that supplies electricity, heat and desalinated water for SunDrop Farms in Port Augusta – proposed CST projects are all Australia has managed.
Several proposals have been put forward for South Australia, which has among the highest rates of variable wind and solar in the world (more than 40 per cent), although the state government has lately trained its focus on issuing contracts to gas-fired generators rather than turning to new technologies.
As for manufacturing, CSIRO said it had an existing technology licencing agreement with Heliostat SA to manufacture and market its technology in Australia, and was working closely with them to facilitate Australian CST projects.
CSIRO said it was also working with other automotive manufacturers, including Diver Consolidated Industries, to involve their expertise in the high precision mass production that was essential for this technology.
Industry minister Greg Hunt hailed the fact that “once again we see CSIRO’s researchers leading the world”. We asked his office what happened to the Coalition’s election promise of supporting solar thermal projects in Australia. We didn’t hear back by publication time.
In the meantime, however, advocates of solar thermal in Australia, like Repower Port Augusta, are chalking up the news of the China deal as a win, and hoping it gives Australian politicians a nudge in the right direction.
“Australia’s scientist are continually advancing renewable technology like solar thermal and it’s time Australia’s politicians took advantage of this and kickstarted solar thermal in Australia by backing proposals in Port Augusta” said Repower campaigner Dan Spencer.
“China has clearly seen the benefit building on-demand solar thermal plants brings. With leadership Premier Jay Weatherill and Prime Minister Turnbull can bring this technology to Port Augusta to provide energy security and new clean jobs,” he said.
“Delivering this would not only bring on-demand solar power for South Australia but also create new manufacturing and research opportunities. It’s time to get it done.”