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CSP Today: CSP installations – Room to scale down?

June 29, 2010

25 June 2010

If Southwestern US states are to meet their renewable energy targets on time, energy experts are urging developers to ditch their fixation on large-scale CSP projects.

By Emma Clarke, UK correspondent

Banging a new drum on the scale of CSP, energy experts now say developers’ focus should be on deploying smaller solar plants on rooftops and on abandoned farms closer to urban centres. But can CSP tap into this interim market for distributed energy, or must it always be limited to utility-scale applications?

Progress of large CSP plants in the southwest US has been held back by long delays that are associated with transmission build-outs. Existing transmission lines are at full capacity, and new lines are hugely expensive, hugely controversial and can take a decade, even more, to complete, says Craig Lewis, founding principal of consultancy RightCycle and the FIT Coalition. “In many cases, the transmission won’t ever get built because it is so wildly opposed by the communities it crosses.”

Building large central station solar plants and transmission lines to remote desert locations also involves major environmental trade-offs in terms of water usage and impact on virgin desert, says Bill Powers, engineer and energy consultant.

On the other hand, wholesale distributed generation, or the 20MW-and-under, distribution-interconnected market segment is “cheaper, faster and avoids all of the environmental controversy,” says Powers. He points to Germany, which has installed between 2-4GW of distributed PV every year, “in conditions more akin to the Arctic from a California standpoint”.

In the future, utility-scale CSP plants will provide the backbone of renewable energy in southwest USA, with hundreds of gigawatts of solar power eventually being shipped to the far corners of the United States, says Lewis. But utilities must not get ahead of themselves and neglect a market segment that can come on scale in the near term.

Any room for CSP?

The technology that is expected to dominate the distributed generation market is photovoltaics (PV). Most agree that CSP will be left to niche applications.

“CSP’s strength is in economies of scale”, says Craig Turchi, from the CSP program at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). CSP only becomes cost competitive with PV once large amounts of energy are produced, or when large numbers of units are manufactured.

CSP developers can’t even save costs in the permitting process by going for smaller-scale developments, Turchi adds. “It is more difficult to get a permit for a large site, but the level of effort in terms of costs are comparable for small sites,” he says. “All these factors push CSP into larger facilities.”

Not all agree, however. Craig Lewis believes there will be “a tremendous amount of innovation” from the CSP community to scale down their technology in order to participate in the wholesale-distributed energy market.

The key, he says, will be innovations in technology that can go through smaller power blocks. The reason companies currently prefer large-scale projects, is because 70MW power blocks are available off-the-shelf.

“But once we achieve scale for lower capacity power blocks, the pricing will come down,” says Lewis. When this happens, CSP technology will be competitive at a smaller scale.

Innovation is already underway. Hawaii-based designer and manufacturer, Sopogy has developed a range of micro CSP solutions that use smaller parabolic trough panels and an organic Rankine cycle (ORC) system, which instead of using steam, uses the temperature difference between fluids in a closed loop to generate electricity.

“In the US we see our technologies being installed on heavy commercial, industrial and utility sectors and on rooftops or ground mounted,” says a Sopogy spokesperson.

Sopogy’s technology, which generates energy in the range of 1-50MW, has eleven solar thermal energy facilities worldwide in applications including process heat, solar air conditioning, roof top deployment and, more recently, power generation.

Parabolic trough manufacturer and solar developer, Albiasa Solar is also scaling down its CSP technology in order to target new markets. To achieve this it is using Ram Power’s Solar Thermal Integrated Cycle (STIC) technology that integrates both ORC and steam turbine technologies into a single power block.

The key benefit of this technology, says Jesse Tippett, managing director of Albiasa, is that it can operate at lower temperatures for both heating and cooling. This means it generates more energy overall so developers can achieve greater economies of scale in smaller plants. The lower temperatures also mean the system can be air cooled to save on water usage.

Albiasa are working with developer Pacific Light and Power on a 10MW CSP plant in Hawaii. Tippett sees further applications in southwest USA for projects in the 10-20MW range. On projects of this size, Tippett says costs can compete with PV electricity.

Another opportunity for CSP technology in the distributed market will be for heat process applications. “Solar thermal offers a cost-effective method compared to regular grid electricity to heat water. On the distributed energy side, you will see a lot more development around that,” says Tippett.

Abengoa Solar’s parabolic trough system, for example, is being used to deliver heating, cooling and humidity control of manufacturing facilities at a Steinway & Sons piano factory in New York, and hot water for a minimum-security federal prison outside Denver.

It is unlikely that CSP technology will lead the market for wholesale distributed generation. But if smaller-scale generation does take hold in the United States, innovation could secure it a stake.

To respond to this article, please write to:

Emma Clarke: emma.jane.clarke@gmail.com

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Rikki Stancich: rstancich@gmail.com

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