Solar thermal energy cost expected to halve: CSIRO

Feb 05, 2013 by Charis Palmer & Sunanda Creagh
Concentrated solar thermal power remains expensive compared to other forms of energy. Credit: International Rivers

Solar thermal energy will halve in cost by 2020, the new director of the CSIRO's Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative said today.

Solar thermal energy uses the concentrated heat of the sun to create steam, which turns a turbine and creates a clean, source.

However, it remains expensive compared to other forms of energy due to fossil fuel subsidies and the limited operator hours of solar thermal plants.

The CSIRO's $87 million Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative (ASTRI), which brings together the country's top researchers in the field, aims to make solar thermal energy cheaper by developing new, more efficient technology and finding ways to reduce capital costs.

Dr Manuel J Blanco, who began this week as ASTRI's new director, said the research centre would cut the cost of solar thermal energy to 12 cents a kilowatt hour by 2020, down from 25 cents a now.

"The situation right now is that even though this technology had its start in the United States in the 1990s, it wasn't until 2005 there was been a commercial market for this technology," he said.

"But this technology has a lot of potential and there is a lot of momentum right now."

ASTRI is researching ways to cut the cost of building the by up to 50%, boost the plants' operating hours by 50% to sell more electricity to the grid, improve plant efficiencies and reduce operating and maintenance costs.

Dr Blanco, who has worked in the field for almost 30 years and was previously in charge of solar thermal energy at Spain's National Renewable Energy Centre (CENER), said Australia was well placed to lead research on the technology.

"I have a good outlook on what is happening in different countries with this technology and I came to the conclusion that what's happening at CSIRO in Australia is very interesting indeed," he said.

"Overall you have a large potential for and you are located in a part of the world near a lot of other countries that are going to deploy this technology like India, South Africa and China. There's a lot of demand emerging in developing countries for solar ."

But UNSW environmental studies professor Dr Mark Diesendorf said medium-scale concentrated solar thermal (CST) required supportive government policies, such as feed-in tariffs, to stimulate the market.

"While the Australian government is funding research and development in solar energy, it is unfortunately reluctant to implement the necessary policies to build the market for medium-scale solar power stations, both photovoltaic and CST, and so to further reduce their costs."

Dr Diesendorf said while CST was currently more expensive than solar photovoltaic, it had the advantage of storing overnight part of the heat energy it collected during the daytime.

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tadchem
3.5 / 5 (4) Feb 05, 2013
"cut the cost of solar thermal energy to 12 cents a kilowatt hour by 2020, down from 25 cents a kilowatt hour now"
...and it will STILL be more expensive than hydro, coal or nuclear.
Bob_Wallace
3 / 5 (3) Feb 05, 2013
Well, more expensive than already build and paid off hydro and nuclear. Less expensive than new hydro or nuclear.

Cheaper than coal. You forgot to add in the health costs of burning coal which makes it our most expensive source of electricity.

But the real competition comes from PV solar. Just this week we got news of utility level solar being sold for under 6 cents per kWh. Add in the federal and state subsidies and we get a price that is right around 10 cents per kWh.

Ten cents for PV now, 12 cents for thermal in 2020 if things go as planned.

Additionally we're also being told that manufacturing costs for PV panels should drop by about one third over the next three years.

Bob_Wallace
4 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2013
Will the value of thermal storage make CST profitable? If, by 2020, PV solar is around 6 cents then all that would be needed to make stored PV cheaper than CST would be storage for 6 cents or less. That's fairly likely.

Plus PV storage would be more versatile. It could be used for moving excess wind production to peak demand hours. That would increase revenue for that type of storage as it could perform multiple cycles per day.
djr
3 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2013
Thanks Bob - good information. There are also other advantages to this kind of power generation that are not reflected in the raw costs. Eg - no fuel cost - so we are not concerned about the future cost of coal, or uranium. Quick build time - how long does it take to put up a nuke, or a coal plant? No pollution, or radio active waste. Small scale - so will lend itself well to micro grid/community based generation. I think there is no doubt that these technologies have a bright future being integrated into our generation mix.
Grallen
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2013
Peak green power in Ontario Canada is valued at approximately 15 cents per kwh. 12 cents looks like it has room for profit.

Yes, we have pure green energy provider choices.

Most importantly, peak electricity cost times are when the sun is up.

Also... Other sources or power will be more costly by 2020. More demand, less supply.