Monday, May 08, 2006

Concentrating Solar comes of age

I was reading my Solar Today magazine yesterday. Rona Fried's article "Concentrating Solar Has Arrived" noted some truly exciting developments. In the last year 864MW of concentrating solar power (CSP) has been announced by three utilities in the US Southwest.

While I had heard of each development individually, taken together it is eye-opening. According to Sandia's SUNLAB (and Rona) the levelized cost of CSP at the 100+MW scale is now ~ $0.11 per kWh. CSP supplies peak power, which is (almost by definition) the most expensive power to provide. Typically CSP competes with natural gas peaking plants which provide power at a levelized cost of $0.15 kWh (back in 2003 when natural gas was cheaper) according to the California Energy Commission.

Perhaps this 27% cost advantage has something to do with the explosion of CSP projects announcements? But perhaps more exciting than the cost is the size of the installations. This is happening at a near GW scale that utilities are used to dealing with. Unlike solar PV which normally gets installed at 2-20kW scale and occasionally 100-250kW. CSP is "starting out" 1000x as big. I say starting out in quotes because the technology has been proven over the past 20-25 years. Essentially CSP must now be taken seriously as a peak power solution by utilities around the country (although it will clearly produce the greatest bang in the southwest). Moreover there are several hybrid designs which allow CSP in combination with storage or fossil fuel technology to become as reliable as needed (i.e. the stray cloud won't bring the whole grid to a halt).

All in all, I see this as a watershed year for CSP at a time when people are taking a serious look at ways we can reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Please note: I'm not saying CSP is THE answer, but it does appear to be one serious answer (among many we will need) that fits nicely into the existing utility worldview. A ray of hope...


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