WA awards grant to solar thermal & storage plant

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The consortium behind plans for a WA solar thermal plant, using Australian-invented and owned technology, wins state government funding.

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Among the handful of universities and companies named by the Western Australian government yesterday as sharing in $12.7 million of clean energy funding, one of the more interesting was Solastor – a Sydney-based solar company which, in partnership with Carbon Reduction Ventures, plans use its Australian-invented and owned technology to develop solar thermal plants in WA.

The consortium’s first such plant – towards which its share ($3.775 million) of the in-principle Low Emissions Energy Development (LEED) funding, announced yesterday by state environment minister Bill Marmion and energy minister Peter Collier, will go – is the North Midlands Solar Thermal Power Project; a proposed plant which the companies, along with the Shire of Morawa, say shows considerable potential as a fringe-of-grid solution to enhance power reliability in WA’s Mid West region.

Like other solar thermal systems, Solastor’s is capable of providing energy on demand, and around the clock. In Solastor’s case it does this by placing a solar receiver containing a quantity of graphite on a 24 metre high tower and surrounding it with a number of toroidal heliostats which, using custom-designed software, follow the path of the sun and direct its rays onto the receiver.

For storing this energy, the system uses high purity graphite technology which, developed over the last 10 years by Lloyd Energy Systems and Solastor, is capable of operating at very high temperatures (up to 800°C) with little complexity and great reliability. That means that once the sun goes down, or it gets cloudy, the entry point to the tower’s receiver is closed and sealed. And once the energy is stored, the high purity graphite ensures the thermal losses are very low.

When power is needed, water is flowed into heat exchangers embedded within the graphite, where it becomes superheated steam. The steam is then combined in a common manifold, brought to the right temperature and pressure, and then passed to a 1.5MW (initially) turbine generator, which can then produce electricity, day or night. After passing through the turbine, the steam is then condensed to water and re-circulated into the feedwater system – a feature that, along with its use of air-cooled condensers – makes the Solastor System ideally suited to arid regions, with limited water supplies.

The system is also modular, with each receiver and its surrounding array of heliostats making up a single module (and approximately 4 modules per hectare of land). Solastor says any number of modules can be used to meet a project’s required output. So far the technology has been successfully demonstrated in Australia. Plans are underway for several more large-scale projects in Cyprus, Chile and Oman.

As for the planned commercial demonstration plant in WA, for Solastor it represents the culmination of years of R&D and investment in Australia. “The North Midlands project will incorporate new more efficient heliostats which have been developed and rigorously tested at our R&D base in Cooma,” said Steve Hollis, Solastor’s CEO and managing director, in a statement on Tuesday. “This project will be the first in the world to utilise these ‘new generation’ toroidal heliostats, combined with the novel heat storage technology, making the plant capable of power generation up to 24 hours a day. This power station has the potential to save over 2500 tonnes of emissions a year.”

And being located in the town of Morawa – a growing iron ore mining hub which was recently named as a “SuperTown” by the WA government through the Royalties for Regions Program – it is also hoped the plant will provide a pilot for other fringe-of-grid communities around Australia, to help to reduce reliance on mainstream power supply.

“Morawa is currently on the cusp of significant growth opportunities with new iron ore mining ventures in the area. This growth, however, is constrained by power supply reliability issues associated with fringe of grid locations,” said Shire of Morawa CEO Gavin Treasure, in a media statement on the North Midlands Solar Thermal Power Project in February.

“This world class project will deliver major improvements in power supply and reliability to the region, and a financial return to the community,” Treasure said. “The project will facilitate expansion of Morawa as the community grows in conjunction with new mining developments, enabling new land and housing developments to occur; provide local and indigenous employment opportunities in the construction, operation and maintenance phases of the plant.”

First, however, Solastor and Carbon Reduction Ventures will need to get busy raising another $11.3 million – the LEED funding is subject to matching every $1 of government money with at least $3 from elsewhere. Robert Coltrona, managing director at CRV, seems confident this can be done, saying yesterday in a media statement that the companies “look forward to finalising the project milestones and funding program with the state government of Western Australia for disbursement of the funds.”

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