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BrightSource In Gigawatt-Scale Demo Of Dispatchable Solar In China

The Chinese government has announced a pilot program to jumpstart dispatchable solar in a 20-project Commercial Demonstration Pilot Program for a total of over a gigawatt.

Out of 109 applications, BrightSource Energy’s 135 MW Delingha tower was one of only 20 projects chosen for the pilot program. The National Energy Agency (NEA) program is designed to pick among several technologies to find the best to support going forward.

Each tower Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) project will include thermal energy storage, so this will be solar generation that can be switched on or off on demand, day or night.


Image Credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Why this matters:

CSP with thermal energy storage can generate solar on demand, day or night, disrupting natural gas power.

In this pilot, China will pay for the power generated at an initially higher tariff of 1.15 Yuan/kWh (17 cents per kWH) for the solar energy generated by these 1.35 GW of pilot projects. But this higher rate won’t be permanent, according to Jennifer Rigney at BrightSource Energy.

“In the future, the government will adjust its tariff policy as projects are deployed, performance is evaluated, and cost reductions are achieved,” Rigney told CleanTechnica.

Only these 20 pilot CSP projects approved this year by the NEA would be eligible to receive the higher initial NDRC tariff. NEA is counting on prices coming down as Chinese supply chains develop and mass production lowers costs, as in other industries.

Unlike the US, China is moving straight to storage; the raison d’etre for CSP – that it can generate power on demand day or night.


Image Credit: Pixabay

Each of the tower projects in this pilot must include thermal energy storage.

In this China pilot, BrightSource Energy will not use the direct steam technology that it deployed at its 392 MW Ivanpah CSP project in California. Direct steam is less amenable to the inclusion of thermal energy storage.

When BrightSource Energy negotiated its US utility contracts, before the drought hit California, PG&E had no expectation of needing storage, as it then had abundant pumped hydro storage.

Instead, at the Delingha project BrightSource will use molten salt thermal energy storage.

To facilitate molten salt-based energy storage, the receiver will first heat the molten salts directly in the tower. This will make Delingha more akin to the technology pioneered by SolarReserve at the 110 MW Crescent Dunes, and at SENER’s 20 MW Gemasolar, based on the research from RocketDyne scientists who now work at SolarReserve.

The Delingha project’s thermal energy storage will not be licensed from SolarReserve, however, it is BrightSource’s technology that it has demonstrated at its Solar Energy Development Center (SEDC) R&D facility in Israel.

“The storage solution is based on the successful operation of the molten salt receiver design that has been operating for nearly two years at the SDEC,” said Joe Desmond, BrightSource Energy’s SVP of Government Affairs.

Won’t be “bolt-on” storage:

Molten salt-based thermal energy storage that has been “bolted on” to a system using another method of transferring the heat is generally considered less cost-effective than a full molten salt system, from tower to tank for storage.

Abengoa’s Solana CSP project in Arizona uses hot oil as its heat transfer fluid, and then “bolts-on” a molten salt storage system to store the heat. (Solana is also not tower technology, but uses a field of lower heat parabolic troughs to harvest the solar flux)

The Delingha project is now fully permitted and ready to begin construction. The pilot project at 135 MW is actually just the first of six towers comprising an 810 MW CSP project: the Huanghe Qinghai Delingha Solar Thermal Power Generation Project.

In 2014, Shanghai Electric Company (SEC) noted that Ivanpah has shown “good stability in commercial operation” and formed a joint venture with BrightSource Energy to construct Huanghe Qinghai Delingha Solar Thermal Power Generation Project – Delingha for short – in the Quinghai province.

Despite being so reviled in the US press over various and trumped-up alarms, Chinese firms visiting the US were impressed with the engineering of Ivanpah — and Crescent Dunes: (China also signed an even more ambitious MOU with SolarReserve for 1 GW of CSP plants in May).

Both US CSP firms had looked overseas as legislative constraints mounted on US growth, after the Tea Party takeover of congress that by 2011 had shut down most of the DOE program which jumpstarted the first US CSP since the Carter era. But CSP turns out to be an ideal export.

“One of the benefits of CSP versus PV on an international basis is that we can procure a large portion of the facility locally,” SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith commented. “Almost the entire Heliostat field; mirrors, glass, foundations, cabling, all those kinds of things can be procured within the country.”

Because the back end of a CSP plant is the same as a coal or gas plant, China is almost the perfect country for CSP manufacturing, with years of experience in manufacturing and supply chain for coal plant construction. For almost all of the needs of a CSP plant, all but the tracking drives can be sourced locally.

In CSP, only the fuel harvesting is different from other thermal generation: instead of digging up mountains or fracking under towns to extract a finite fuel, mirrors focus concentrated sunlight up to a central tower receiver.


Image Credit: BrightSource Energy

What China could do for CSP:

China was key to mass production of PV that has dropped solar prices so much and in such a short time.  

“When China wants to expedite things; it does expedite things. Man! Fantastic,” said lawyer Dan Harris, of the China-based construction law firm Harris Moure, which has had a front row seat to China’s rapid deployment once a commitment is made.

“They’ll say they’re going to build an airport and all of a sudden it’s there.”

Permitting in China is relatively straightforward, taking as little as a year, and focused on pollution prevention, making it solar-friendly.

“In China, permitting mostly deals with protecting humans,” he explained. “Worker safety is becoming huge. Water pollution. Waste disposal. Air pollution.”

And China has serious commitments to climate change.

“China’s five-year plan is a serious document showing where China wants to go. They are sick of pollution,” said Harris.

China is working to establish a national CSP tariff policy in the same way that it encouraged PV investment, Desmond told me last year when he joined the US-China Renewables Energy Industries Forum, the Obama Administration’s first high level trade mission to China.

Desmond said China is working to establish a national CSP tariff policy in the same way that it encouraged PV investment. We know how that went!

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