Is there a second chance for concentrated solar power?

To use an old sports cliche, it isn’t about how you start, but rather how you end that matters.

Concentrated solar power’s beginnings in the United States may be characterized as a splutter. In the United States, CSP has an operating capacity of about 1.8 gigatonnes (GW) after multiple starts and pauses over the last 30 years. Alternatively, solar photovoltaic technology has around 113.5 gigatonnes (GW) of capacity, with the majority of this expansion coming over the previous decade, according to the solar energy industries association.

The Biden administration is spending up to $30 million on CSP research and development, which raises the question of why. CSP research, development, and demonstration are being supported by the Department of Energy (DOE), with an additional $5 million being made available for innovative initiatives. Experts believe that carbon capture and storage (CSP) might be critical in helping the United States achieve its lofty decarbonization objectives. It only needs a second chance.

There are some bumps on the road

Abengoa, a Spanish producer of concentrated solar power (CSP), has more than half of the world’s installed capacity, including some of the world’s biggest facilities in the United States.

According to Miguel Mendez Trigo, head of renewables and energy storage at Abengoa, the failure of certain projects, as well as a general lack of information about CSP technology, are to blame for the limited success of CSP in the United States. The need for an “education campaign” to illustrate the value that CSP can provide in both power production and thermal energy storage, he said, is critical and must be launched immediately.

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Because of CSP’s stumbling start, lithium-ion batteries have seized a dominating position in the energy storage field, while natural gas has been able to hold on to its position.

The window of opportunity

CSP is a technology that collects and concentrates the complete spectrum of sunlight into heat via the use of mirrors (heliostats) and receivers. CSP facilities have the capability of generating power. They distinguish themselves from rival technologies by being able to store energy for extended periods of time utilizing a thermal energy storage technology, as opposed to other technologies.

Long-term energy storage is becoming more necessary to support renewable power on the grid, and this provides the most promising prospect for CSP to soar.

According to Craig Turchi, who directs the CSP program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, CSP can deliver the 12-24-hour storage capacity that the system is already clamoring for. One issue for CSP implementation is developing a market structure that recognizes and rewards the unique and useful characteristics of the technology.

As renewables continue to develop, a CSP thermal storage system may also increase capacity more affordably than battery energy storage systems, which usually cost the same for the next megawatt hour as the first.

“The problem, from a financial standpoint, is figuring out how to be compensated for having that edge.” Turchi expressed himself. He said that if an owner is only compensated when putting power on the grid at the same cost as the thermal storage, “then there is no benefit to owning that thermal storage.”

The industrial sector, which has its own set of decarbonization issues, stands to benefit the most from the implementation of CSP thermal energy storage. Turchi said that this is especially true if it is used to replace natural gas in heat-driven processes such as the manufacturing of steel, cement, ammonia, and fuels.

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In the field of CSP, the Department of Energy’s research support is focused on showcasing projects in the industrial sector and furthering research in particle-based thermal systems. Those systems might be less complicated than the molten salt systems now in use. So, despite the fact that CSP has had a rocky start in the United States, the Department of Energy and the Biden administration are not giving up hope. It is possible that their climate ambitions may be jeopardized as a result.