New Hampshire, USA — By the end of 2013, the largest solar power plants in the world will be generating power from the sun and they won’t be using photovoltaic (PV) technology. Brightsource’s 277-MW Ivanpah in California, Areva’s 250-MW project in Rajasthan, India and many others are all set to come online by the end of the year. The 100-MW Shams 1 project commenced operation in Abu Dhabi in March. “The outlook for CSP has never been brighter,” said Alison Mason, Director of Marketing at SkyFuel.
CSP technology captures solar energy through troughs or mirrors (also called heliostats), which are set on trackers and concentrate the sunlight to generate power. Mainly used in utility-scale power generation projects, the technology also holds promise for other applications, including process heat and enhanced oil recovery operations (see sidebar on page 44). To date, however, the technology has struggled to gain ground. Back in 2010, thousands of megawatts of CSP projects were in the works, but that number was slowly pared down as developers of large utility-scale solar projects switched their technology from CSP to PV because of dropping PV panel prices. Nonetheless, today there are almost 12 GW of CSP projects in some form of development all over the globe and 2.7 GW of operating plants worldwide.
Worldwide Geographical Markets and Applications
CSP companies are targeting sun-drenched countries that have solar incentives on the books, said Mason. She said traditional oil-producing countries are “investing heavily in CSP to free up their oil for sale.” In addition, she said SkyFuel is targeting “all markets with incentives for CSP” and named Italy, Turkey, the United States, India, China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, South Africa, and Chile” as good examples of such markets.
Areva Solar is also targeting the MENA (Middle Eastern and North Africa) countries. According to Jayesh Goyal, Global Vice President at Areva Solar, India will play a big role in CSP adoption, as well. “Like Saudi Arabia and other progressive energy markets, India is a global leader in its commitment to the advancement of the solar energy industry, including CSP,” he said. India’s National Solar Mission calls for the country to install 20 GW of solar energy by 2020. In addition to Areva’s 250-MW plant, Goyal said that there are “two more RFP’s in India expected this year for a total of 300 MW of new capacity.”
“We have our eye on a number of promising markets,” said John Van Scoter, President and CEO at eSolar. With GE as a partner, eSolar has muscle behind its technology, and Van Scoter said that the company has been “active in promoting Integrated Solar Combined Cycle (ISCC) projects in major markets.” The technology allows a power plant to generate solar power when the sun is shining but switch over to natural gas or coal when solar power can’t be produced. “Interest for the ISCC technology has been strong from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Turkey and Australia,” he said. Hybrid plants such as these are able to provide firm, dispatchable power, explained Van Scoter, which increases its attractiveness to utilities and “improves CSP’s cost competitiveness,” he added. Areva’s Goyal agreed, explaining that his company is installing its Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) solar steam generators at a coal plant in Australia. He said that the CLFR technology would increase plant output by up to 44 MW and do so at a lower cost than building a standalone 44-MW plant.
CSP technology can also be coupled with energy storage, one of the hottest topics in the renewable energy industry this year. Plants that include energy storage with molten salt can store solar power and dispatch it in the early evening and into the night. Tex Wilkins from the CSP Alliance thinks this application could make PV, which is often viewed as a threat to CSP, a complimentary technology. “The ability of CSP with storage to dispatch its power to the grid in the early morning and evening can combine with daytime PV to spread out the use of solar power from the time people get up early in the morning until they go to bed late at night,” he explained. Wilkins said that in five years most CSP plants will include energy storage. Van Scoter from eSolar said in five years he expects that most CSP projects will include molten salt or ISCC technology. “There is also a high potential for projects involving industrial process heat, EOR and desalination,” he said.
All CSP experts said that utilities are just beginning to recognize CSP’s value – a renewable energy able to provide base load, dispatchable power. According to SkyFuel’s Mason, “This attribute of CSP is its main differentiator from PV and wind, and will ensure its increasing uptake in the power market.”
SIDEBAR: Concentrating Solar Power in a Greenhouse or “Trough in a Box”
“I’m not a big believer in CSP for power,” said Rod MacGregor, President and CEO of GlassPoint Solar. GlassPoint, a start-up with just two projects under its belt, uses CSP technology in an entirely different way.
Instead of capturing the sun’s heat to create power, it creates steam for use in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). MacGregor explained that as oil wells are depleted the oil becomes thicker and more expensive to bring to the surface. When wells are abandoned, he said, about 70 percent of the resource is still there. EOR technology pumps steam into the earth around the well in order to heat the oil, which makes it less viscous and therefore easier (and cheaper) to pump.
MacGregor said that the economics of solar EOR simply make it the cheapest game in town. Traditional EOR uses liquid natural gas (LNG) to create the steam that is pumped into the ground. Once the LNG price goes over $5.00 per million BTU, solar EOR from GlassPoint is a less expensive option. In the Middle East, where the company just completed a 7-MW EOR with Petroleum Development Oman, LNG sells for around $18 per million BTU, according to MacGregor.
The technology is based on the same principles as traditional CSP but is optimized for use in oil fields. Because troughs are enclosed in a greenhouse-type structure, the steel and concrete that is used in CSP for power plants is reduced significantly. “The biggest cost driver for CSP is wind,” MacGregor explained, adding that large troughs are essentially huge sails that need lots of steel and concrete to be firmly attached to the ground. Because GlassPoint’s trough is enclosed, the troughs are lighter and hang from the ceiling, so capital costs are reduced. Operations and maintenance costs are also reduced because the greenhouses are automatically cleaned with windshield-washer type technology. Greenhouses have a 100-year history and as such have benefitted from years of technological improvements, said MacGregor.
MacGregor believes that, at least for power generation, PV technology is winning over CSP – for now. But, he doesn’t think that means CSP technology isn’t viable at all. Keep your eye out for more innovative applications of CSP technology in the next few years. GlassPoint is certainly an application to watch.
Lead image: The small “mass-manufactured” heliostat is a major component of eSolar’s concentrated solar power technology.