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DOE Awards $10 Million for Concentrating Solar Power Storage Research

The Department of Energy announced Wednesday it has awarded $10 million to be split between six research and development projects that will focus on thermochemical storage technologies for concentrating solar power (CSP) systems.

This announcement comes hot on the heels of President Obama’s recent pledge to make 2014 a watershed year for solar energy.

The recipients of the Energy Department’s funding are the Colorado School of Mines, UCLA, the University of Florida, the Southern Research Institute, Pacific Northwest Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratory. All will work on the development of “novel thermochemical energy storage systems” with the goal of achieving greater levels of efficiency in the storage of higher temperature, higher density solar energy. 

“The six projects that are funded are looking at three different classes of thermochemical systems,” said Dr. Ranga Pitchumani, chief scientist and concentrating solar power program manager for the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative. “These include carbonates, hydrites and perovskite materials.”

CSP technology employs mirrors that concentrate reflected sunlight onto receivers containing heat transfer fluids. From there, the fluids are used to heat water, which in turn generates the steam that is used to power turbines. Pitchumani said the funded explorations will not only increase the capacity of heat transfer fluids to sustain energy for longer periods of time, but will also result in driving down the cost of utility-scale CSP.

“Thermochemical energy requires very compact storage and uses less materials, which cuts cost,” Pitchumani said, adding that CSP with thermal energy storage is “a key enabling technology” in the nation’s future energy generation mix. 

Though the industry faces some challenges, one of the differentiating factors that sets CSP apart from other methods of renewable energy power generation — including standard PV technology — is that when combined with thermal energy storage technology, it is able to produce electricity around the clock. Additionally, CSP can be adapted to work with traditional fossil-fuel power plants in hybrid scenarios that have been shown to dramatically decrease associated emissions. 

Pitchumani calls this a win-win scenario for all. “There is a tremendous potential for CSP to go through hybridization with fossil fuel plants,” he said. “CSP with thermal energy storage enables greater penetration and also works synergistically with our existing traditional assets.” 

In addition to the announcement of its $10 million award, the Department of Energy also released a report titled “2014: The Year of Concentrating Solar Power” which identifies five U.S.-based CSP plants that are expected to be fully operational within the year. These include the Crescent Dunes, Ivanpah, Genesis, Mojave and Solana CSP plants. Ivanpah, Crescent Dunes and Genesis began operations earlier this year and Solana started sending power to the grid in late 2013. Once all are in operation, their combined total electricity generation will be 1.26 GW — a figure that will effectively quadruple preexisting U.S. concentrating solar power capacity.

“This is a very critical and exciting juncture,” Pitchumani said. “It’s a tremendous time to build on this momentum, and to take the technology forward to meeting the SunShot Initiative’s 2020 goal.”

Lead image: CSP mirrors via Shutterstock

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Vince Font is a freelance journalist specializing in the fields of renewable energy, high tech, travel, and entertainment. Read his blog at www.vincefont.com or follow him on Twitter @vincefont.

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