U.S. solar thermal firm in deal for 2000 MW project with biomass
Here’s e-mail from Bill Gross, who runs eSolar, a promising California solar-thermal start-up: On Saturday, in Beijing, said Gross, he announced “the biggest solar-thermal deal ever. It’s a 2 gigawatt, $5 billion deal to build plants in China using our California-based technology. China is being even more aggressive than the U.S. We applied for a [U.S. Department of Energy] loan for a 92 megawatt project in New Mexico, and in less time than it took them to do stage 1 of the application review, China signs, approves, and is ready to begin construction this year on a 20 times bigger project!”
More good news, bad news from the NYT‘s Tom Friedman.
The good news is that China is finally making the great leap forward into concentrated solar thermal power (with biomass). That is “The Technology that will Save Humanity,” as I’ve argued. It’s the most scalable and affordable baseload (or, even better, load-following) low-carbon supply technology when used with low-cost, high-efficiency thermal storage or when sharing its steam turbine with biomass or even natural gas (see “Hybrid solar/gas plants provide low-cost, low-carbon power when needed“).
The bad news is, this is yet another core clean energy technology pioneered in the United States (in the 1980s) that China may eat our lunch on (see “Invented here, sold there”).
For now, though, the United States is making a serious effort (see “World’s largest solar plant with thermal storage to be built in Arizona “” total of 8500 MW of this core climate solution planned for 2014 in U.S. alone“). And, foolishly, some key Chinese don’t seem to understand what a core technology this is. In “China Tries a New Tack to Go Solar,” The NY Times has this bewildering report:
Much of the country is cloudy or smoggy. Water is scarce. The sunniest places left for solar power are deserts deep in the interior, far from the energy-hungry coastal provinces that consume most of China’s electricity. Provinces deep in the interior have few skilled workers or engineers to maintain the automated gear that keeps mirrors focused on towers that transfer the heat from sunbeams into fluids.
Concentrating solar power “is not very suitable for China,” wrote Li Junfeng, a senior government energy policy maker, in a detailed e-mail reply to questions this week.
Yet the private sector in China is racing to embrace the technology anyway.
Huh. Why would the Chinese private sector do such a dumb thing? Maybe because transmission isn’t that big a deal for a country spending so much money on infrastructure, and CSP doesn’t need to consume a lot of water (see “The secret to low-water-use, high-efficiency concentrating solar power“).
Mr. Li wrote that concentrating solar power works best when cheap water, cheap land and lots of sun are available in the same place “” a rare combination in China. Mr. Li also expressed concern that concentrating solar power would prove more expensive per kilowatt-hour generated than photovoltaic solar power, a technology in which China is already the world’s low-cost supplier.Mr. Li has a lot of influence on these issues. He is a deputy director general for energy research at the National Development and Reform Commission, the top economic planning agency in China. And he is the secretary general of the government-backed Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, which helps oversee these industries’ operations in China.
But Mr. Li did say that he saw a limited role for concentrating solar power, particularly in places where it could be combined with other power plants, or where it could be combined with a way to store power overnight. Penglai and eSolar hope to do both.
Water consumption, mainly to condense the steam after it has been used to generate electricity, is another potential weakness of the technology. Water tends to be scarce in deserts, of course. Penglai and eSolar are leaning toward air cooling instead of water cooling, at the price of cutting the efficiency of their plant.
Mr. Gross said the eSolar technology could also be used to create extra heat during the day, with the heat being stored and used to generate power at night “” a form of the electricity storage sought by Mr. Li.
Despite the government’s skepticism, renewable energy investors remain enthusiastic about the potential for concentrating solar power projects in China.
Huh. Again it’s those silly renewable energy investors who remain excited about this technology. I wonder why.
Here’s what solar thermal expert John S. O’Donnell, VP Business Development, GlassPoint Solar, Inc. emailed me:
Cheap land and lots of sun characterize most of the western half of China. Modern HVDC electricity transmission systems lose only 3% of electric power per 1000km, so it is economical to put large solar generating plants in the sunny regions to serve the large loads to the East. Europe is planning large solar plants in North Africa; China is blessed with suitable sunny regions all in-country. Large-scale solar thermal power projects fit well with government policy for China’s western regions, where ongoing investment is being made to spread economic growth and continue lifting millions out of poverty. US studies have found that solar thermal power generation creates 4 times the construction jobs and twice the permanent jobs of conventional generation, while delivering power at prices comparable to current fossil generation; this should be true in China as well.
Water usage is not really a serious constraint. While water usage of wet-cooled power plants is high, dry cooling is now standard technology, widely deployed, and brings water consumption down to a level corresponding to roughly 1 to 2 inches of rain per year at the site. Dry cooled plants raise the cost of power about 9%, but even so, solar thermal power is lower cost than photovoltaic technology. Thousands of megawatts are in planning for the US, and China now has 2000 MW in planning.
The recently announced eSolar deal for China is a great example of the potential for solar thermal power in China. eSolar’s approach took commodity steel and glass and built a new-generation power tower that uses more computing and less concrete. Expect to see ongoing major cost reductions in solar thermal power. There is no known lower limit on the cost of reflecting sunlight, and ongoing innovation in mirror systems will continue to drive down cost, using commodity materials in new combinations and structures.
One key advantage of solar thermal power is its day-and-night operation, an obvious requirement for solar energy to grow beyond its current niche. Economical energy storage as heat is now at commercial scale. Power projects are underway in Spain which operate 24 hours a day in the summer months, and many more are planned in the US and around the world.
ESolar doesn’t use the trough design seen in the schematic at the top (which I included to illustrate the basic components of CSP system with storage). They use a power tower:
Interestingly, the NYT‘s Green Inc reports, “ESolar’s technology will be combined in China with biomass plants fueled by a local shrub“:
China’s plans to build 2,000 megawatts of solar thermal power using technology from a California company, eSolar, will also include the construction of biomass power plants to generate electricity when the sun sets.
The solar and biomass plants will share turbines and other infrastructure, reducing the projects’ cost and allowing around-the-clock electricity production, according to Bill Gross, eSolar’s chairman.
“That supercharges the economics of solar,” said Mr. Gross in a telephone interview, noting that the addition of biomass generation will allow power plants to operate at 90 percent of capacity.
Under terms of the deal announced Saturday in Beijing, eSolar will license its “power tower” technology to Penglai Electric, which will manage the construction of the power plants over the next decade.
Another Chinese company, the China Shaanxi Yulin Huayang New Energy Company, will own and operate the first projects to be built in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in northern China.
A local shrub grown in the surrounding region to fight desertification, called the sand willow, will supply fuel for the biomass power plants, according to Penglai Electric….
ESolar’s power plants deploy fields of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that on a tower. The heat vaporizes the water and the resulting high-pressure steam is piped to a power block, where it drives an electricity-generating turbine.The company uses a software control system and imaging technology to control 176,000 small mirrors that form arrays at its standard 46-megawatt power plant. The software positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola to focus the sun on the receiver tower. That allows eSolar to make the mirrors cheaply and pack them close together to reduce the size of the power plant.
Mr. Gross noted that in California unskilled workers need 15 minutes training to learn how to install the solar fields. “In China, they wanted to use untrained labor as well,” he said.
I just hope the U.S. Senate is smart enough to realize that The only way to win the clean energy race is to pass the clean energy bill.
- World’s second* largest solar plant to be built in Florida
- World’s largest solar power plants with thermal storage to be built in Arizona