New methods to examine the potential of concentrating thermal solar power

December 13, 2010
The average number of days per year when thermal CSP power plants cannot operate due to low direct normal irradiance levels. During many of these days, these plants are expected to still produce power using a backup system using natural gas or biomass. This feature allows CSP plants to produce reliable power year-round. Reprinted from Energy Policy, Vol 38, Author(s), Zhang, Y., SJ Smith, GP Kyle, and PW Stackhouse Jr., Pages 7884-7897, Copyright 2010, with permission from Elsevier.

New data and methods have been developed to examine the potential for thermal concentrating solar power (CSP) plants to help meet energy and environmental goals. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, University of Maryland, and NASA analyzed the interactions between CSP plants and the electricity system and found that CSP power plants have the potential to supply a significant fraction of future electricity needs.

CSP technologies hold a promise of clean, domestic power around the world. CSP systems convert the thermal energy in sunlight into electricity. Global use of this technology is projected to grow substantially in the near future with numerous plants under construction worldwide. The potential of technologies is difficult to evaluate, however, because the energy-economic models used to inform decision-makers are not designed to simulate variable renewable resources. The results of this study can be used to produce more realistic estimates of their potential contribution.

The operation of CSP power plants and their interaction with electric loads, by time of day and season, were analyzed to determine how this technology could be realistically incorporated into energy-economic models. A key characteristic of CSP power plants is their ability to supply reliable power through the use of a low-cost backup option referred to as hybrid plants, whereby natural gas, or even biomass, can be combusted in a low-cost boiler or heating unit to supply power on cloudy days.

Plant performance depended on two key parameters: the number of cloudy days in which cannot operate, and the average amount of sunshine on operational days. This research showed that an accurate characterization of the number of such "no operational" days is key to a realistic characterization of this technology. No existing data sets provided global estimates of this parameter, so the necessary values were estimated using regressions developed from the U.S. National Solar Radiation Database in conjunction with a global solar resource data set developed by NASA. The technology representation and data developed in this work were then implemented in the Global Change Assessment Model (GCAM) to examine how CSP technologies might compete with other electricity supply technologies in 14 global regions. Using the GCAM integrated assessment model, the researchers found that, even under relatively modest assumptions for technological improvement, from 2-10% of electricity supply in various global regions might come from CSP technologies by the end of the century. This work also found that, even assuming the development of thermal storage technologies, gas or biomass use during cloudy days becomes a substantial portion of plant costs in the future as fuel prices increase and CSP plant capital costs fall.

The methodologies and data developed in this research can potentially be used in many energy-economic models to more realistically examine the potential of CSP technologies. A detailed study of the potential of renewable energy more broadly using this and related work using the GCAM model is underway at PNNL. The work reported here highlighted the importance of estimating new solar resource parameters, which may be possible with the next generation of solar resource assessments being conducted by NASA. The role of CSP backup operation should be more thoroughly examined in detailed renewable energy analyses.

Explore further: World Bank musters $5.5 billion for solar projects

More information: Zhang Y, et al, 2009. "Modeling the Potential for Thermal Concentrating Solar Power Technologies." Energy Policy 38:7884-7897. Available online.

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3.5 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2010
Using the GCAM integrated assessment model, the researchers found that, even under relatively modest assumptions for technological improvement, from 2-10% of electricity supply in various global regions might come from CSP technologies by the end of the century.

90 years to convert just 2% to 10% to solar?

That's completely insane. That's like 900 years to get to 100% solar.

We went from 100% wood power and horse-and-buggy and no airplanes, automobiles or electricty, to what we have now in a matter of really a few decades.
not rated yet Dec 13, 2010
@ Quantum, they're referring specifically to CSP. Supplying up to 10% of our power needs with nothing more than CSP would be quite a feat...
not rated yet Dec 13, 2010
They are probably just saying that, based on the number of sunny days, the max predicted efficiency of a CST plant, and the max number of CST plants anyone would want to build in a given area, 10% is about all we can expect from that source in comparrison to other methods that will be used.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2010
Last I heard a CSP plant uses 4X as much water on a daily basis than a natural gas power plant.
not rated yet Dec 14, 2010
You are referring to efficiency and cooling.
Natural gas power efficiency can range from 10% to 60%, say 40%.
Solar thermal could range from 10% to 30% or higher, say 20%.
So it may use 2x the cooling.
Do you cool by water or air?

If water, do you discard warm cooling water or use it to distill salt water?

In Power for the People, Aden Meinel described an area in the SW desert that could provide ALL the electricity for the US AND 2/3rds of it's fresh water by desalination.

Its all in how you compare and how far you can reduce the costs.

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