Major changes in the worldā€™s established energy supply systems are being driven by growing energy demand, energy security concerns, rising greenhouse gas emissions, local environmental issues, increasing oil prices, and international competition to lead in the emerging clean energy technologies.

Australia shares these global concerns. To address them all at least cost and risk, while providing energy for intra-day peaks and longer-term demands, a portfolio of energy options is needed.

CSP is one of those options

Global installed capacity of CSP is growing rapidly and is predicted to reach 2 GW in 2013, led by Spain and the US. Concentrating solar thermal (CST) plants dominate, typically using standard steam turbines and often integrating thermal energy storage.

However, a significant cost-revenue gap for CSP projects is deterring private investment in Australia. Concerted action is needed to close that gap and retain CSP as a strong energy option for Australiaā€™s future.

CSP can contribute significantly to Australiaā€™s energy needs

At the moment Australia has just over 50 GW in electricity generation capacity from all sources, but studies have found that it would be technically feasible to add up to 15 GW of CSP capacity, with only modest grid extensions.

Hybrid systems within existing fossil-fuel plants, and smaller plants for off-grid mines and towns, are important near term applications for CSP systems. Future ā€˜nation-buildingā€™ grid extensions would unlock more of Australiaā€™s world-leading solar resource, which vastly exceeds all predictable energy demand.

It is important to point out that CSP offers particular benefits:

  • Dispatchable energy supply: Systems that can dispatch electricity in the range of baseload to peaking power are an essential complement to variable renewable sources. CSP with storage has that capability.
  • Lower emission conventional power plants: CSP can be efficiently integrated into existing and new coal and gas power plants to reduce emissions and extend plant life for a least-cost transition to a low-emission energy future.
  • Emission reduction: 10 GW of capacity would reduce Australiaā€™s emissions by roughly 30 Mt CO2 per year, about 15% of current electricity sector emissions.
  • Clean energy sector growth: Only a few countries are currently investing in CSP. With CSP exploiting its world-leading solar resources, Australia can claim a significant place in the global clean energy supply chain. Delaying action will see that opportunity missed.
  • Community-supported generation: CSP need not compete for valuable land or water and is low-impact. Every 100 MW system would create around 500 job years during construction and 20 jobs during operation, mostly in regional areas.
  • Potential for future solar fuels: Emerging technology will convert solar energy to liquid fuels, supplied at scale to both domestic and export markets.

The main problem at the moment is that the cost-revenue gap is currently too great

The CSP cost-revenue equation varies enormously with system configuration and location. Instantaneous CSP generation correlates well with peak electricity prices. With thermal storage, the energy value of CSP systems is even higher, up to double the wholesale market average. Even so, CSP projects are not yet commercially attractive in Australia. For utility-scale systems, the baseline ā€˜levelised cost of energyā€™ (LCOE) is around $250 per MWh, while maximum revenue streams in main grid-connected markets currently total around $120 per MWh (including renewable certificates). The gap is smaller for the relatively small off-grid mining and remote towns sector.

The gap will close, with the help of Australian action

Consistent with overseas research, it is realistic to believe that the cost-revenue gap for CSP in Australia is likely to close over the next 6 to 18 years as plant costs fall through global deployment and technology improvement and available revenue rises.

However, these projections depend on continued global investment in CSP. At this early stage of the global industry, Australia has the opportunity to contribute significantly to momentum in reducing costs and risk. Completing 250 MW of Solar Flagships and other deployments and maintaining a sector annual growth in line with recent global rates would lead to an Australian CSP capacity of around 2 GW by 2020.

To achieve this goal, Australian action is needed:

Bridge the reducing cost-revenue gap

Whilst continuing to focus on lowering cost, the CSP sector should work with governments and regulators to increase the reward for clean energy systems that better correlate generation to real-time demand.

Build confidence in CSPā€™s offer

The CSP sector should better communicate CSPā€™s value proposition to key stakeholders including AEMO, AEMC, electricity retailers and financiers.

Establish CSP-solar precincts

The CSP sector should work with governments, regulators and service providers to pre-approve and provide connections for CSP systems in selected areas of high solar resource.

Foster CSP research, development and demonstration

The CSP sector should leverage continued public and industry investment in research, development and demonstration, with more emphasis on meeting Australian needs.

Building CSP in Australia requires growth in skills and capabilities that are lacking; targeting deployment of systems below 50 MW (overlooked by the global industry); incorporating energy storage; improving efficiency; hybridisation with fossil fuel plants; and using advanced cooling technologies (reflecting our water constraints).

If these actions are pursued successfully, the CSP sector would be large enough to deliver economies of scale within immediate investment and policy horizons.

Here you have an extensive document prepared by IT POWER (Australia) PTY LTD for the Australian Solar Institute in May 2012.

CSP Australia 2012