Tuesday, November 13, 2007

CSP basks in the glow of a sunny future

So, I have seen the future. The future is bright, the future is CSP. Really, I did, and it was awe-inspiring.

After two days of intense industry and investment talk on CSP, Hywel and I determined we had to see a CSP plant for ourselves. An all-nighter with some newly found friends sampling the delights of Seville sealed our fate. Fortified with an indulgence of tapas and manzanilla, off we scooted without a map before sunrise on a rickety moped heading northwesterly to find our plant. And find it we did. Just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, shimmering in the chill morning air, there loomed a tower with beams of light shining up from the heliostats, looking for all the world as if it had been zanussied in from outer space. It stopped us in our tracks.

This is the Abengoa PS10 plant, the first commercial CSP plant in Spain, and the first solar thermal plant to use a tower commercially. It’s an 11 MW solar thermal plant that has been designed to produce 23 GWh of electricity a year, enough to supply a population of 10,000. It went online in March this year and saves about 16,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum.

Ach, it’s a baby plant you may scoff, this is nothing. But wait, this is just the beginning – and it does not feel so small when standing in front of one of the mirrors as it looms as high as a lamp-post, surrounded by an array of hundreds of these super-sized mirrors. Ahh, but they’re great for basking in the warmth, especially after our hair-raising-chilled-to-the-bone excursion. You can hear them humming happily, as they turn imperceptibly to track the sun: technology’s answer to the sunflower. Oh - and there on the other side of the dusty track is another one: a sister plant double the size which is due to commence operations within 6 months. It’s exciting spacey stuff.

So, the technical details: electricity is produced via 624 movable mirrors (heliostats) of 120 m2 surface each that concentrates solar radiation to the top of a 115 meter high tower where the solar receiver and the steam turbine are located. So, the sun heats the liquid up to 260 - 300*C, which in turn creates steam, which turns the turbine which creates clean green electricity. Simple really, and stunning to see.

But this is not all. Spain has big plans; a further 13 plants , each of 50MW, are due to begin construction (the great thing is these things can be built fast – just 2 – 3 years from planning licence application to laying of the mirrors) by 2010. If they could go bigger they would, but the legislative framework put in place by the Royal Decree 661/2007 ( which has created regulatory stability for access and connection rights to transmission and distribution networks of renewable electricity) currently places a cap on size and number. That will doubtless be increased in due course. There are favourable feed-in-tariffs and, by fostering such proactive policies and incentives, the Spanish government has demonstrated it’s strong commitment to back the renewable industry. They have boldly set their Mandatory Energy Objectives at 30% renewables by 2020, 80% by 2050. There is optimism that even more can be achieved, earlier and within an even tighter framework.

Globally, is estimated that up to 45 GW will be online within the next 15 years, but if those with grand vision are to be supported, the reality could be far larger than that. 500 GW would satisfy the total European electricity demand – that’s a bold vision, but not impossible (there’s a lot of desert and sun out there), and some clean tech investors across the world are beginning to think really big.

Australia is experimenting, China is looking, the Middle East and North Africa have the space and the sun to really roll this out and even America is now moving with remarkable speed in this arena. Switched on this summer was the 64MW Nevada Solar One, a 64 megawatt plant in Boulder City, Nevada. Now Acciona Energy has announced plans for their next project which will be more than three times its size. The 200 MW plant will be built by 2010. Due to the vast solar resource in the Southwest - New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, the US is now envisaging racking up new-build capacity to 1.5 GW per annum, rapidly increasing to 3 GW within 10 years. Even a year ago, such bold vision was not anticipated. What will this industry look like in a year’s time I wonder?

So, here I am back in sodden London, wondering how soon a Europe-wide and North African standardised electricity network could be put in place. It all seems like a dream, until I awoke this morning to hear Al Gore on Radio 4 saying that he has teamed up with venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins to to help finance entrepreneurs who are addressing climate change.

Having explained what the problems are with his film, he is now looking to the solutions. He’s out to prove that protecting the environment and reducing carbon emissions is good for the economy as well as the environment. Not only that, he’s putting his money where his mouth is and matching the smart solutions, such as low carbon alternatives to generating electricity. As he put it, there are a lot of technologies that already exist that have never been given their due, and now it is time to do so. One example that they are supporting, he said, was “advanced solar thermal electricity generation based on the use of highly sophisticated computer driven mirrors to concentrate the sun's energy to simply boil water to generate electricity.” Now that is a smart idea!

Generation Investment Management

Gore joins Silicon Valley's Kleiner Perkins to push green business

Latest news article: All about CSP

If you would like to know more about CSP, or help support awareness raising, go to TREC-UK


2007 said...

CNN Money(Fortune Magazine)

Al Gore's next act: Planet-saving VC
The recovering politician is teaming with a legendary venture capitalist and bigtime moneyman to make over the $6 trillion global energy business. A Fortune exclusive

We're sitting in the giant conference room at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where the partners hold their weekly meetings. After loading his plate with Chinese food from a buffet, Gore is firing detailed questions at the management team of Ausra, a Kleiner-backed company in Palo Alto whose technology uses mirrors the width of a flatbed truck that focus the sun's energy to generate electricity.Once Gore is satisfied -- sunlight lags north of South Dakota, an Ausra plant can serve 120,000 homes, and yes, smaller turbines will work fine -- he shifts from inquisitor to fixer. He was chatting with California Senator Barbara Boxer "on the way over," he reports, and he isn't optimistic that Congress will extend the tax he offers on the spot to organize a summit highlighting the company's solar thermal technology to educate lawmakers and other policymakers on its potentialcredits Ausra has been relying on. On the upside, . He also thinks a powwow at General Electric would be beneficial, even though Ausra is a tiny customer. (...)

J. Wilson said...

Love it. Great pictures.

Check out my blog if you get a chance: eight-thirty.blogspot.com.

rossinisbird said...

Great piece! Even though we can't rely on new technology on it's own to solve our problems, this shows that with imagination and hard cold investment we can go a long way towards softening the energy gap without turning to nukes.

High Voltage said...

I've found this article about the same plant you reviewed:


It's the first reference I've found to CSP outside your blog and found it interesting.
I agree with rossinisbird, and also think that we can't rely in just one technology.
But CSP has a great potential and solves other problem besides energy supply: Clean Water, so, sooner than later, should be one of the three or four big solutions to the power problem.