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Technology solutions to change…

Advantages of Solar Thermal Energy

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The importance of STE technology is crucial in achieving a 100% renewable energy share by 2050. The advantages are many: dispatchability, a high capacity factor and the ability to feed the grid with firm energy to name just a few.

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Solar Thermal Electricity (STE), also known as concentrating solar power (CSP), is a renewable energy technology that uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy and convert it into high-temperature heat to create steam to drive a turbine that generates electricity. STE is a carbon-free source of electricity that is best suited to areas in the world with strong irradiation: Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East, South Africa, parts of India, China, Southern USA and Australia.

The European Solar Thermal Electricity Association’s (Estela) recent joint report with Greenpeace and SolarPACES on STE’s Global Outlook 2016, indicates that STE is the key to achieving a 100% renewable share by 2050 in a wise mix with other renewables. It also estimates that the potential for STE to meet global electricity demand is far greater: the analysis based on the Advanced Scenario assumptions shows that STE could meet up to 12% of the world’s projected power needs in 2050, which is the most optimistic scenario when only Sunbelt countries are considered.

Among all renewable energies, STE stands out because of its distinct technical features, such as dispatchability – through storage and/ or hybridization – and grid stability, as well as because of its high macroeconomic impact on the economy, largely adding to the country’s GDP through high investments, fiscal contributions, fuel imports reduction and the creation of jobs in component manufacturing and in the construction and operation of the plant.

STE power plants are able to feed firm electricity to the grid, thanks to their well dimensioned on-site storage and their ability to hybridize with other sources.

Technically, STE plants are almost fully dispatchable and can perfectly follow the demand curve, with operational time (capacity factor) much higher than 50% all year long. They could even reach 100% in plant configurations functioning solely on solar energy. The high capacity factor is also an advantage when trying to optimize the transmission network, particularly in countries with a high electrical consumption growth.

Furthermore, STE power plants are able to feed firm electricity to the grid, thanks to their well dimensioned on-site storage and their ability to hybridize with biomass or any other source, renewable or conventional. In some regions hybridization with natural gas or coal might be advantageous.

Hybridization can be a wise solution in specific cases and STE plants with storage could therefore facilitate the deployment of variable renewable energy power plants. Dispatching STE at the evening peak to complement PV plants will increase significantly the operational and capacity value of hybrid STE/PV plants. Both technologies appear hence as ultimately complementary. The value of STE will increase as PV deploys further in order to be able to shave mid-day peaks and beef-up evening and early morning peaks.

STE stands out because of its distinct technical features, such as dispatchability – through storage and/ or hybridization – and grid stability.

STE plants contribute to the grid stability, because of the high mechanical inertia of their generator system, so the voltage and frequency in the grid could be maintained in case of short term incidents. In addition, STE stands out for its distinct technical features, such as dispatchability – through storage and/ or hybridization – and grid stability.

One main driver for policy makers should be the share of the investment in new generation equipment that remains in the country, contributing to the growth of the local economy. STE plants already provide a local content close to 40 % from the very first plant installed in a typical sunbelt country. The economic impact of STE plants is the highest one of the most relevant renewable energy technologies, both in job creation and in the development of local industry during the whole process of plant construction and operation.

When comparing the 5 GW of solar thermal power plants installed with the 400 GW of wind or 200 GW of PV, it is obvious that STE technologies have a huge potential for cost reductions.

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Michael Geyer, Director Business Development Europe, Africa & Middle East at Abengoa Solar.

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