Clean Power

Published on February 27th, 2014 | by Roy L Hales


“CSP Has Fallen By The Wayside” But May Come Back Big By 2020

February 27th, 2014 by  

Originally published on The ECO Report.


In 2010, concentrating solar power (CSP) projects like Ivanpah were heralded as the future of utility-scale solar projects. Spain and the US led the world in the development of this technology. Since then, they have largely fallen to the wayside in the wake of inexpensive photovoltaics (PV) and presently survive in niche applications. The average CSP system costs 37% to 60% more than a comparable PV system. A new report from Lux Research predicts this will continue until CSP providers develop components that operate at high temperatures, integrate low-cost thermal energy storage (TES), reduce materials, and maintain system performance.

“CSP has fallen by the wayside of the solar industry after attracting huge amounts of government and investor money in 2010 and 2011. But the industry can still bring the technology back to the forefront for utility-scale, stand-alone power applications,” said Ed Cahill, Lux Research Associate and the lead author of the report titled, “Turning Up the Heat on Advanced Concentrating Solar Components.”

“Corporations need to invest in the development of advanced CSP components today, to bring CSP to a competitive level with PV before it falls too far behind.”

Power towers could already successfully compete with utility-scale multicrystalline silicon (mc-Si) if they could secure larger projects that integrate thermal energy storage Unfortunately this also triples the up-front capital expenditure, making it nearly impossible to secure project financing without significant government support.

BrightSource’s Ivanpah, SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes, and Abengoa’s Solana received $3.7 billion in US federal loan guarantees, but this type of funding is no longer available.

Consequently, BrightSource’s Rio Mesa, Hidden Hills, and Palen projects have all been cancelled. Companies like BrightSource and Solar Reserves are too small to advance CSP to the next level without additional funding.

There are a number of large power companies — like GDF Suez, NRG, and E.On — that both have the resources and have demonstrated their appetite for large CSP projects. Nevertheless, the next few years look bleak for CSP. There are specialized markets in places like South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Chile, but most of the world is choosing PV. By 2012, the global demand for PV had increased to 30.7 GW, while CSP only rose to only 1.18 GW.

However, by 2020, Lux Research says that a number of new technologies will make it possible for CSP to successfully compete with PV.

Sectors to Watch (from Lux’s press release):

Thermal energy storage (TES) are among the top targets for cost reduction. Today’s CSP system costs are 37% to 60% higher than mc-Si without TES – and 300% to 600% higher with 14 hours of TES. Storage is among the largest portions of the system cost stack, and will be a primary target for advanced system components.

Advanced power towers will win for large projects. Supercritical steam systems are the most likely to come to fruition by 2020. The next step for power towers will likely be toward Air Brayton and supercritical CO2 systems that can beat mc-Si’s LCOE by 31% and 33%, respectively.

Fresnel reflector systems are best for small projects. Linear Fresnel reflectors with molten salt heat transfer fluid can undercut mc-Si’s LCOE by 6% and have the most potential to dominate smaller CSP projects and alternative applications like integrated solar combined cycle (ISCC), industrial heat, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and water purification applications.

(Graphic at top of page courtesy Lux Research, Inc)

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About the Author

is the President of Cortes Community Radio , CKTZ 89.5 FM, where he has hosted a half hour program since 2014, and editor of the the ECOreport, a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of North America. He writes for both writes for both Clean Technica and PlanetSave on Important Media. He is a research junkie who has written over 1,600 since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.

  • JamesWimberley

    14 hours of storage? The famous Australian study of 100% renewable scenarios – by the technologically conservative grid operator AEMO, not advocates – included a lot of CSP as backup. They concluded the optimum storage was 6 hours: basically from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. There’s next to no demand at 3 a.m. and no need to build capacity to meet it. (OK, there’s aluminium, which you should build next to 24/7 hydro.) Remember that the concept of “baseload” was a reflection of the inefficiencies of run-all-the-time coal and nuclear plants, not of real demand patterns.

    • And the 6 hours storage is probably based on full power. With lower demand the storage can run throughout the night. This happens in Spain for example.

  • Count me in the skeptic camp. Mds already laid out most of the arguments.

    This says it all:

    “The next step for power towers will likely be toward Air Brayton and supercritical CO2 systems that can beat mc-Si’s LCOE by 31% and 33%, respectively”

    Firstly, it baffles me how they can make such an incredibly precise prediction for 6 years from now in a field of technology that is developing fast. If one thing can be learned from the past, it is the consistent underestimating of the potential of the PV industry to lower cost.

    The fact that they pitch it against mc-Si, assumes they think that will still be the dominant technology by then. Multiple new technologies are being developed and may be much cheaper than mc-Si in 2020 or shortly thereafter.

  • spec9

    PV is cheaper and probably always will be from now on . . . but PV can’t do storage very well. CSP can do thermal storage and thus provide some extra power for the evening peak and thus will remain a useful technology that should be deployed.

    • mds

      “but PV can’t do storage very well”
      I’m not sure that’s true any more. If it is, then I think that is about to change in a very big way. In places like Australia and Arizona it will give home owners and communities the opportunity to reduce their electricity bills in-spite of utilities that would try to hold them hostage to higher electricity prices. In any case, the advantage for PV and storage at the end-of-grid is huge.

  • mds

    Very Monty Python-esk. The parrot: “It’s not dead. It’s just rest’in.” I don’t think you fall in this race and then get back up again. The real problem is multiple forms of low cost power storage are now coming to the market, which can be used with Solar PV. PV is already much lower in cost than CSP, so the CSP advantage is naught.
    Some other problems with CSP:
    1. Systems are more complex => higher cost.
    2. Systems involve high heat => higher maintenance/operating costs.
    3. Suitable for centralized power generation => the most important cost advantage of Solar (Solar PV) is it can be used at the end-of-the-grid, thus avoiding significant grid transmission costs.
    Sorry, don’t mean to rain on incredible technological advancement in CSP accomplished by some very dedicated people, but it doesn’t help to ignore reality and I don’t see CSP as competitive going forward. Just say’in this is what I’m see’in…

    • Omega Centauri

      I’m not entirely conviced that CSP won’t find a place. Its mainly an issue of the cost of energy storage, TES ought to be the cheapest form, although the cost differential has to be great enough to overcome the generating cost advantage of PV. Also there ought to be some hybrid niches where CSP is used for both heat and power. I think it certainly has a difficult hill to climb, but I would totally write it off yet.

      • Matt

        Co-generation only works when you can be built next to the heat user. There is a lot of wasted heat at a coal/gas/nuclear plant. But unless you build it inside the plant that wants it there is no use for it. Running the pipe to “share” the heat is a big undertaking.

      • mds

        I wouldn’t say I’m CSP off, so much as questioning the basis of the come back prediction here. The improvements they’re talking about probably won’t be able to compete with greater improvements in mc-Si by 2020. We’ll see.

        “cost of energy storage, TES ought to be the cheapest form”
        Your own language reveals how weak this argument is. “ought to be” doesn’t count for much in competitive markets and I’m not sure that’s correct anyway.

        “cost differential has to be great enough to overcome the generating cost advantage of PV”
        …and overcome the end-of-grid advantage for PV and for other forms of energy storage (eg. EOS, Ambri, Aquion, Tesla Li ion, other Li ion, Lightsail compressed air, etc.). Many areas throughout the world and even in the Southern half of the USA it will soon be cost effective for homes and communities to go off-grid. If you’re dependent on being part of utility power generation, then you’re counting on selling into a shrinking market going forward. Not a good bet.

        • Omega Centauri

          The whole economy isn’t single family detached residences and small businesses with enough roof area ro meet their needs. Large industrial plants will still need to import large amounts of power over the grid. We will still need utility scale plants of some sort (hopefully they will be wind and sun).

          • Bob_Wallace

            Don’t overlook the fact that when a home’s solar array is operating it is sending enough power to the grid to power 4x, 5x as many homes.

            If your array is sized to provide 100% of your electricity then during the 4.2 to 5.5 average daily sunny hours you’re generating enough to cover the other 18.5 to 19.8 hours.

            Then consider, a “100%” solar array for a home covers only part of the roof. The math may turn out to work better for turning end-user roofs into mini-electricity factors. No real estate costs, no transmission costs, wide distribution…

          • Omega Centauri

            That is economically inefficient. At low penetration, we’ve made it a good choice for the local homeowner via net metering, so he/she gets paid retail price for bulk power exports. But utility scale plants are much cheaper per watt (and have better capacity factors because of location and tracking, and professional management.).

            Only if you can make roof installation costs go very very low. And roofs do need occasional repairs. Also lots small scale inverters version multi-megawatt ones, lots of anti-islanding equipment etc.

          • Ronald Brakels

            It might be less materially efficient to install rooftop solar than build utility scale farms, but point of use solar is certainly more economically efficient in an awful lot of places. This is because it provides the end product at a lower cost to the user because there are no distribution costs. It is certainly the economically efficient choice in Australia and that’s before taking into account the fact that rooftop solar is considerably cheaper than utility scale solar here.

          • kent

            Solar power not working.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Go outside and check the colour of the sky. If it’s black you might be suffering from chronic nocturnal solar failure.

          • Kent

            Yes solar power is a failure, just lucky we have coal base load power to keep you powered up.

          • Ronald Brakels

            South Australia doesn’t have coal baseload generating capacity. The low wholesale cost of electricity in South Australia in the cooler half of the year makes it unprofitable to run the Northern Power Station year round.

          • Kent

            Because of solar power which rob the system, rorted the money away from base load power station under REC RET & solar payments.
            How long do you think they can continue to pay out the rort for, South Australia bankrupt because because of it.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Yes, yes… it’s a terrible rort. All those Australian citizens deciding of their own free will to install solar panels on their roofs and provide themselves and their local area with clean energy and stealing money from those poor innocent coal plants who only want to help children with their health giving particulates, invigorating heavy metals, and warming greenhouse gases. Who will save us from this calamity?

          • Kent

            Yes, yes you are one of those that when out to rorted the system. Stealing from the poor so you don’t have to pay your way. But south Australia now bankrupt because of this rorting scheme, Yes it big calamity which you played apart of it.

            That why we now need to TAX grid connected solar power of the roof, and build new coal base power stations in SA.

          • Ronald Brakels

            We could import brown coal from Victoria to power the new coal plants. Victorian coal is the best. No need to use matches, it’s already on fire in the mine.

          • Kent

            True, that the right, we can cut down on the the amount of matches used. saving all those trees. But given the fireman have been using water on the best Victorian coal, it turn the coal into coking coal just right for burning in a power station or steel plant operation or even exported to china.

          • Ronald Brakels

            No, spraying coal with water does not turn coal into coke. Victorian coal is always sprayed with water to keep the dust down and stop it catching on fire but it never turns into coking coal as a result. Victorian coal is brown coal or lignite and so it is not just right for burning in a power station. It is both bulkier and a greater fire hazard than black coal. It also has more impurities resulting in greater pollution and burns less efficiently resulting in greater greenhouse gas emissions. Brown coal is not suitable for steel making. Its carbon content is not nearly high enough and it lacks the mechanical strength required for metallurgical coal. Brown coal is never exported. It is dangerous to transport and its bulk makes transportation expensive and no one wants it. China imports Australian black coal specifically because it is less polluting than the brown coal they have and they use it to prevent mass dieoffs from coal pollution in a variety of cities.

          • Top Commenter

            Don’t overlook the the fact this page will be deleted by bob.

    • Doug Cutler

      If CSP does fall behind and eventually lose the solar race there is no shame. The great minds that took up that path freed up other great minds to pursue solar PV. In the early days it was not clear which approach would pay off most so it made sense to pursue both. In a race its often second best driving the winner on to even greater things; seen in the larger dynamic its still a type of cooperative effort. My hat is off to ALL solar engineers.

      • mds

        Yes, certainly no shame. Good point about being part of the competition driving more rapid improvements. My hat is also off.

    • I agree with you, it might needs more cost for installation and maintenance. But Installing solar power system is a good featured plan to generate own electricity needs.

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