Mirrors, not panels, hold key to solar energy future, group says

For a long time, one of the leading complaints about wind and solar power was that they were too expensive compared to good ol’ coal, gas and oil. Those objections have begun falling by the wayside as technologies have improved, oil prices have shot up and the cost of photovoltaics in particular has dropped, pushing renewable energy sources ever closer to grid parity.

That leaves the door open for another common objection — that wind and solar work only when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining — to start gaining momentum.

Not so fast, say executives with a certain segment of the solar-energy industry: concentrating solar power, or CSP.

“Concentrating solar power technology is the only renewable resource that is capable of harnessing the world’s most abundant fuel source — the sun — to produce reliable, cost-effective, and dispatchable electricity,” says Tex Wilkins, who formerly led the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Concentrating Solar Power Team. “We believe CSP, with the ability to dispatch electricity when it is needed, is critical in meeting the energy challenges facing the United States and the world.”

Instead of photovoltaic solar panels, CSP uses mirrors to focus concentrated beams of sunlight onto an area where the heat converts a liquid to steam, which can then be used to drive an electricity-generating turbine. What’s more, some or all of that heat energy can be stored for later in tanks of oil or molten salt. That stored thermal energy can be tapped later to generate power after the sun sets for the night.

Energy production from CSP has grown considerably since the early days in the mid-80s. The US today boasts more than 500 megawatts (MW) of CSP power generation, with another 1,300-plus MW in the development pipeline. Worldwide, CSP plants produce more than 1 gigawatt (GW) of energy, and projects in the works will soon raise that to 15 gigawatts. (A recent study from the International Energy Agency found that, with sufficient investment and the right government policies, more than 10 percent of the world’s electricity demand could be met by CSP by 2050.)

Which is why the time seemed right for several CSP companies to come together and form a new industry group to push for continued growth.

Announced this week, the newly formed Concentrating Solar Power Alliance (CSPA) is aimed at “educating US regulators, utilities and grid operators about the unique benefits of concentrating solar power (CSP) and of thermal energy storage as a foundational resource for a reliable, low-carbon electricity mix and a driver of economic growth.” The group, founded by three companies — Abengoa, BrightSource Energy and Torresol Energy — has named DOE veteran Wilkins to be its first executive director.

“We believe CSP, with the ability to dispatch electricity when it is needed, is critical in meeting the energy challenges facing the United States and the world,” said Wilkins upon the CSPA’s launch.

The CSPA is independent of another newly formed CSP group — the World Solar Thermal Electricity Association, or STELAWorld, which is a consortium of  industry associations from Europe, Australia and South Africa. However, the CSPA’s founders say their organization will work closely with these other groups to “further advance the solar thermal industry in the US and abroad.”

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