Energy Department to Invest $60 Million in Emerging Concentrating Solar Power Technologies

Concentrating Solar Power — large power plants that convert thermal energy into electricity — offer firm, centralized power that better match a utility’s needs.  See “Solar Can Be Baseload: Spanish CSP Plant with Storage Produces Electricity for 24 Hours Straight.”

But CSP plants, which require far more material and man-power to develop than equivalent PV plants, are not coming down in cost as quickly. That’s not because the technology is flawed. It’s because CSP requires a unique set of requirements that make them more capital intensive to build.

An investment announced today by the Department of Energy may help accelerate those cost reductions. The DOE is working to facilitate more innovation in the sector by investing $60 million over the next three years toward companies and labs developing new technologies and power plant development techniques. The funds are being deployed through the SunShot Initiative, DOE’s competitive program with the goal of reducing solar costs by 75%.

DOE is looking at deploying funds to 20 teams working on new solar collectors, heat transfer technologies, power plant engineering approaches, and improvements in steam temperature ranges.

It could provide a good R&D boost for the sector, which has been somewhat overshadowed by the frenzy around cost and price reductions in solar PV.

Last year, DOE put released a good film highlighting all the different types of CSP currently being deployed. It’s a bit rudimentary for those who know about the technology, but it illustrates the various ways in which the technologies could be improved.

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9 Responses to Energy Department to Invest $60 Million in Emerging Concentrating Solar Power Technologies

  1. Theodore says:

    The reason CSP could beat all other renewables on cost is simple. The bulk of the cost is in manufacturing hardware and installing it. Both of these costs are susceptible to radical reductions as a result of design improvements and the economies of scale brought about by high volume manufacturing. None of the other costs are unusually high. 6 cents per kilowatt hour is clearly achievable, and 4 may be possible. Cost comparisons with intermittent wind and PV power are not valid until an economical method of energy storage has been developed. Many claims of cheap storage have been made, but none are commercially and universally available at this time. Only CSP is a drop-in replacement for nuclear power and coal power.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Troughs are not the future here. It’s too expensive to make big arrays and transfer the sunlight to liquid in a small pipe.

    eSolar has the best technology, by deploying multiple helistats (cheaper small flat reflectors) which precisely rotate according to the sun’s location (including laterally) and focus rays on a single transparent boiler. Heliostat surfaces are high tech reflector coatings, better than stainless steel.

    sSolar’s weakness is basic engineering. They are so enamored with their software that they overlooked the key cost components for thermal: steel and concrete. Better steel geometries and high tensile strength chemistry have not been explored by the solar majors. They need to do it, especially since it could lead to helical pile foundations and elimination of concrete footings, spendy in the remote desert.

    Even new companies get stubborn. The fact that there is vast room for improvement should be encouraging, however.

  3. prokaryotes says:

    Nice to see some progress in the USA :)

  4. SD says:

    according to a colorado water future talk i attended in boulder over the summer, this sort of solar technology is a huge consumer of water – and if the solar plants are built in the southwestern deserts, they will take badly needed water away from agriculture and from nature – the two water consumption sectors that have the least bargaining muscle at the water negotiating table. Cities and towns – water for drinking, ornamental fountains, flushing toilets and watering golf-courses – and energy (most power plants use lots and lots of water) have the most power when it comes to fighting over water, because cities and energy companies have the most money. Bottom line – the University of Co water and climate experts i heard indicated that this new solar technology would be a bad way to go, given that climate change means diminishing water supplies throughout the western US.

  5. Joe Romm says:

    No. CSP plants in deserts all use dry cooling. I’ve blogged on this many times.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Water is only used to clean the panels, a miniscule amount. This rumor is part of an organized campaign by gas and coal to stall and defeat solar in the desert, which is a big threat to them.

    They play dirty- local fake enviros were recruited to harrass officials at public meetings over false claims of habitat destruction- regardless of the site. I saw this up close in the Mojave from 2007-2009. The delays have been very damaging to the country’s shift to renewable energy, since startups can’t take those big hits.

    Someone needs to investigate this. I wish I had the time to do it.

  7. Theodore says:

    “Sandia National Laboratories researchers are moving into the demonstration phase of a novel gas turbine system for power generation, with the promise that thermal-to-electric conversion efficiency will be increased to as much as 50 percent — an improvement of 50 percent for nuclear power stations equipped with steam turbines, or a 40 percent improvement for simple gas turbines. The system is also very compact, meaning that capital costs would be relatively low.”

    I suppose this is also applicable to solar thermal designs and geothermal energy.

  8. Joy Hughes says:

    At this point we’ve essentially reached PV grid parity if tax incentives are included. No moving parts, boilers, turbines, and completely scaleable – it can go closer to the cities on existing distribution grids. PV will take the lion’s share of investment and go to peak load saturation in very few years. At that point, there’s a lot of electric and hybrid car batteries to start time shifting and responding to available production. Sodium-sulfur is another battery technology capable of scaling. Smart grids provide demand response.

    The tortoise will win this race.

  9. Theodore says:

    Please educate me. I would like to see the best example you can point to of an existing PV system that can deliver power on a cold dark winter evening at a reasonable cost.