Ronald Brak

Because not everyone can be normal.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Probably No Significant Amount of Concentrating Solar Thermal Capacity Will Be Built In Australia

Concentrating solar thermal power, that is using mirrors to concentrate sunlight to produce steam to run a generator, used to be a big contender in the renewable energy stakes.  It seemed like it should be a low cost way to generate electricity.  After all, the basics are pretty simple - mirrors, pipes, steam, generators.  We could have started building concentrted solar thermal back in the 19th century if we'd wanted to.  But it has been sidelined over the past few years by the huge drop in the price of solar PV which you can see in the form of solar panels installed on roofs all over the place in Australia.  But solar concentrating thermal can be built with thermal storage that can provide electricity after the sun goes down or when it's overcast.  So will Australia build a significant amount of concentrating solar thermal plants?

Probably not.

It's possible that concentrating solar thermal may become an important source of electricity in the future, but it faces some challenges. Its first problem is it’s not currently suitable for point of use applications. That is, you can't easily stick it on your roof and so needs to supply power directly to the grid.  This means that like any other source of electricity that is delivered directly to the grid, it is less competitive than point of use solar PV. As point of use PV is the cheapest source of electricity for most Australians, people are installing a lot of it which is pushing down the wholesale price of electricity during the day and making concentrating solar thermal less economical.

Concentrating solar thermal can be built with energy storage to provide electricity during the evening, but faces the problem that Australia’s high retail prices mean Australians may soon find it profitable to install home and business energy storage which has the potential to greatly reduce the demand for electricity in the evening.   And for on grid storage, concentrating solar thermal faces competition from point of use PV. This is because Australia may end up with enough point of use solar to often push the price of electricity down towards zero during the day. This means that energy storage could be charged at little or no cost during these times. This means that thermal storage could be built without any attached concentrating solar capacity. Using electrical resistance heating to raise the temperature of concrete or other material to later produce steam to generate electricity is not efficient, but if the cost of daytime electricity is low enough it could be cheaper than building concentrating solar thermal.

So I basically I can't see Australia building much in the way of concentrating solar thermal plants, not with the decreasing cost and increasing adoption of solar PV.

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