Solar Thermal Could Augment Australian Power Grid

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New collaborative research from institutions in Australia has posited that concentrated solar thermal power (CST) could prove a very big player in augmenting Australia’s power grid.

The investment into CST could not only reduce the need for new infrastructure installments like electricity poles/structures and wires, which will itself reduce consumer energy bills and save almost $1 billion AUD in network investment, all the while providing needed investment for CST innovation across the country.

“Studies continually show, and this study provides further confirmation, that concentrating solar thermal power has an important and valuable role to play in Australia’s electricity system of the future,” said AUSTELA Chair Andrew Want. “But for these benefits to be realised and necessary investment attracted, we must demonstrate CST technology in our national network.”

The research was led by the Australian Solar Thermal Energy Association (AUSTELA), and supported by the University of Technology, Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), the University of NSW, and Queensland-based Ergon Energy.

The study shows that CST’s inherent ability to store energy as well as increase the efficiency of solar PV electricity generation, especially if CST is installed at key points on the grid where major growth is expected. Andrew Want noted that CST has seen significant investment around the world over the last 20 years, but due to Australia’s lack of grid-connected CST it has suffered from lack of investment in it’s own network.

“It is inevitable we will change the way we plan, generate and deliver energy to consumers – this has already begun, with wind power and solar PV driving the change and CST has an important contribution to make in meeting our future power needs.”

ISF’s Jay Rutovitz notes that network investment attempting to deal with peak demand growth has been largely responsible for Australian electricity price rises over the past five years. She also made it clear that continued similar investments is not economically feasible.

“In planning upgrades to our electricity networks we need reliable and accessible information on hand for government and business decision makers to make the right long-term choices about where money will be spent.”

“This study shows CST could be a viable alternative to traditional network augmentation in more than 70 per cent of the cases examined,” she added. “It also identified how $0.8 billion could be saved from network investment and how 533 megawatts of cost effective CST power could alleviate constrained grid locations in the next ten years. This would reduce greenhouse emissions by an estimated 1.9 million tonnes per year.”

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Joshua S Hill

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3 thoughts on “Solar Thermal Could Augment Australian Power Grid

  • Solar thermal could be an important provider of clean, dispatchable electricity in the future, or it might not. Getting some built may be tricky as it faces a number of hurdles. Electricity use is declining in Australia which makes it harder to build any new capacity and reduces the need for transmission upgrades. In Australia point of use solar is cheaper than solar thermal in the daytime and this would be true even if solar thermal plants cost nothing to build on account of our high retail electricity prices. Point of use (rooftop) solar is pushing down the wholesale price of electricity during the day which reduces the profitability of solar thermal. It’s also reducing the amount of hydroelectricity used during the day leaving more available for the evening which is helping to keep a lid on prices then, reducing the value of solar thermal storage. And may soon be profitable for households with solar (which could be most of them before too long) to start installing some energy storage on account of our high retail electricity prices making it worthwhile and that would push down the price of electricity in the evening, making solar thermal storage less attractive. So solar thermal is an option, but its currently facing a tough situation. Fingers crossed we get a sensible carbon price instead of no carbon price as the Coal-ition government wants.

  • Has anyone seen an informed discussion of the water constraint on CST? Australia has limitless sunny space in the Outback, but it’s s semi- or true desert. Closed-cycle steam generation is IIRC technically feasible but pushes up the cost. There are research projects into Brayton-Cycle CST (gas turbines running on superheated air), which don’t need any water; but with a needed temperature of >1000 deg C, this is challenging and the technology is 5 years at least behind steam CST.

    • Kogan Creek coal plant in Queensland uses dry cooling to reduce water use by about 90% other what it would otherwise. Solar thermal could do the same and this would favour higher temperature solar thermal. But solar thermal plants wouldn’t be built in the outback unless they’re for local use on account of the lack of transmission infrastructure. In South Australia there is only one place to put them for the state’s consumption and that’s at port Augusta on account of how there’s sea water for cooling and existing transmission from the two coal plants that used to operate there. Now there’s one coal plant that bravely chugs along half the time as there is only enought demand in summer to make it worth running. (Thank you South Australian wind and solar). Other states would have a greater variety of locations to choose from but cooling water’s not really a problem as we can use water that’s currently being used by coal plants.

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