With the price of photovoltaic (PV) panels plummeting and the advent of the era of PV “solar farms,” large scale solar thermal projects have not been getting much love lately, at least not in the USA. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) is a workhorse technology for large-scale solar power generation. So why aren’t we hearing more about it?
What is CSP? According the the Solar Energy Industry Association’s Website: “Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants use mirrors to concentrate the energy from the sun to drive traditional steam turbines or engines that create electricity. The thermal energy concentrated in a CSP plant can be stored and used to produce electricity when it is needed, day or night. Today, over 1,400 MW of CSP plants operate in the United States, and another 390 MW will be placed in service in the next year.” Built-in storage. That’s the holy grail of solar, right? Why are we not all over this?
Casandra Sweet of MarketWatch.com is not-so-optimistic about CSP. In an article published last week, she points out that “The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar power project in California’s Mojave Desert is supposed to be generating more than a million megawatt-hours of electricity each year. But 15 months after starting up, the plant is producing just 40% of that, according to data from the U.S. Energy Department.” Technical difficulties are cited as the reason for the slow takeoff.
Ivanpah is not the only California CSP project to take a hit lately. Another project by Ivanpah’s developer, BrightSource, has officially been canceled, with local officials citing concerns over danger to wildlife as well as the area’s drought-stricken groundwater supply as the primary reasons for cancellation.
While CSP is taking a beating stateside, plans for giant expansions in CSP generation are underway across the globe, mostly in equatorial regions where conditions are perfect for massive solar generating projects. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone plans to add as much as 54 GW of concentrating solar generation in the next few decades. Morocco’s ambitious Noor-Quarzazate Concentrating Solar Plant project has received $47.8 million in financial backing from the European Union (EU), and plans are in the works to connect the Noor stations to the EU grid. The Noor project consists of three phases: Phase 1 includes a160 MW parabolic trough-power project. Phase 2 includes two projects, Noor II and Noor III, with generating capacities of 200 MW for Noor II and 150 MW at Noor III. Phase 3 of Noor-Quarzazate project will not be a CSP plant, but rather a 50 MW solar photovoltaic generating facility. Tunisia is also looking to sell into the EU power market with a 2 GW CSP plant called TuNur. British renewables investor Low Carbon, developer Nur Energie and Tunisian investors, with funding from the African Development Bank, would transport the energy via a 600km cable from Tunisia to Italy, where it has already secured approval for a grid connection. This would be the beginning of delivering major amounts of Middle Eastern solar to all parts of the EU.In the Americas Spanish CSP developer Abengoa has put in a plant in Mexico, and recently one in Chile. They also have several plants in the USA, but development here seems to have stalled. Why? It seems that the USA’s unique system of government-sanctioned utility monopolies, along with inconsistent state and federal environmental regulations concerning power generation technologies make it a tough market for CSP. Also, in states like California, where the market for CSP is favorable, the population density makes it impractical. Until desert states like Arizona and New Mexico recognize the full potential of their solar resources, the energy producers of the Middle East may continue to dominate, even in the post-fossil fuel economy.