US Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been in the news — again — for making laughable comments about fossil fuels and climate change — and sexual violence, to boot. Yes, perhaps he really is just that dumb. However, while everyone is pointing and laughing at Secretary Perry, his agency just pushed out a new article that maps the way for solar power to push coal and nuclear energy out of the picture.
If intentional, Perry has just pulled off another squirrel trick — dangling shiny pro-coal rhetoric in front of President* Trump while the Energy Department goes about its renewable energy mission, full steam ahead.
Photo: Crescent Dunes concentrating solar power plant via US Department of Energy.
Why Concentrating Solar Power?
The new article appeared on the Energy Department’s website on November 3 under the title, “Concentrating Solar Power Could Provide the Flexibility and Reliability the U.S. Electric Grid Needs.”
For those of you new to the topic, concentrating solar power plants collect solar energy from sprawling fields of heliostats (specialized mirrors) or troughs, and focus it on a narrower field located at the top of a tower. Here’s a quick explainer from the article:
“This receiver contains a heat transfer fluid that’s heated to around 565 degrees Celsius and then circulated throughout the system to drive a power cycle that generates electricity.”
Power cycle is fancyspeak for using heat to generate steam, which powers a turbine to produce electricity. Because heat is the primary product of concentrating solar power plants, they can also double as large energy storage facilities. All you need is an array of storage tanks to hold the hot fluid for a while.
The storage angle provides two advantages: the solar energy keeps working without sunlight, and the plant can quickly respond to changes in electricity demand.
Why Not Coal?
Here’s where it gets interesting. In April, Perry touched off a firestorm by ordering up a new grid study that seemed frontloaded in favor of coal. A leaked version of the study dropped several important hints indicating a renewable energy future for the USA, but the final report did provide Perry with leverage to propose new protections for the nation’s remaining conventional coal and nuclear power plants.
Perry argues that these “baseload” plants are essential for grid reliability. However, the new Energy Department article knocks the baseload defense aside by underscoring the energy storage advantages of concentrating solar power:
“… one 50-megawatt (MW) CSP plant can be configured as a type of peaker plant with less than six hours’ worth of energy storage. This plant can be used to supplement baseload generation when there’s a sudden, high spike in energy demand. That same plant can also be used with more than 12 hours of storage and a much larger mirror field to generate baseload power—allowing the plant to provide solar electricity throughout the day and night.”
Elaborating further, the Energy Department points out that concentrating solar power plants deploy conventional turbines to generate electricity. These turbines spin constantly, meaning the plant can act just like any other conventional “spinning reserve” to ensure grid reliability and stability.
No, Really, Why Not Coal?
Perry’s proposed rule is designed to protect coal and nuclear power plants by stipulating support for power plants that can demonstrate a 90-day supply on hand. However, the new article also swats that argument aside:
“One of the biggest advantages of CSP is its reliability as an energy source and predictable costs. Unlike conventional fuels, there’s nothing to mine, ship, burn, or store as waste; there’s an abundant, unending supply of sunshine.”
The Energy Department also takes a swipe at coal and nuclear on bottom line terms:
“Because the ‘fuel’ is free, costs are predictable over the lifetime of a plant operation and its maintenance costs. In addition, more than 60% of the cost to operate a CSP power plant happens in the first year, enabling investors to have a better long-term understanding of costs and the return on their investment.”
So, What’s Up With Rick Perry?
Regardless of what Rick Perry says about climate change and fossil fuels, the new article points out that the Energy Department is moving full speed ahead with the goal of reducing the cost of concentrating solar power plants.
The agency is looking at a rapid deployment scenario that would enable the replacement of retired coal and/or nuclear power plants with solar:
“Solar Dynamics, for example, is already investigating the feasibility of a modular, molten-salt tower peaker plant that can be easily replicated and rapidly deployed in 24 months or less.”
The article also describes the Energy Department’s competitive cost targets for both small- and large-scale concentrating solar power plants, and reaffirms its commitment to “help the solar industry stay on pace as competitive funding opportunities focus on rapid development.”
In that regard, the article slips in a quick reference to the Energy Department’s latest funding initiative for concentrating solar. Dubbed Generation 3 CSP Systems, the initiative is no small potatoes. Up to $62 million in funding will go to a dozen or so projects aimed at taking cutting-edge lab scale technology to the next level.
As for Perry’s latest comments, on the plus side, he has been aggressively promoting his agency’s renewable energy mission nonstop, especially when it comes to wind power. A kernel of truth sometimes sticks in his teeth when he talks about climate change.
Perry has an awful legacy on women’s health as the former governor of Texas, but that thing he said about fossil fuels and sexual violence isn’t too far from the consensus. Just sub in solar power for fossil fuels and you get this from the Rocky Mountain Institute:
“Electric light, through solar-powered streetlights, can also improve women’s safety and ability to participate in nighttime activities such as meetings and classes. Studies show the incidence of rape and violent crimes against women decreases greatly with the addition of streetlights. Rape was rampant in the camps for families displaced after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. But when solar-powered lights were introduced into the camps, the number of rape cases per week fell from 57 to 2 in just one week.”
Here’s a nice solar project financed by USAID illustrating the point:
“… For years, the citizens of Baidoa, a city in Somalia located 140 miles northwest of Mogadishu, could not walk the streets at night. Businesses closed at 6:00 p.m. and people locked themselves up in their homes from fear.
“‘Women could not walk anywhere because of the possibility of rape, robbery or killings by local gangs,’ says Amina Hussein Haji, a local resident.
“When USAID supported the local government with the installation of 27 solar streetlights on the main street in Baidoa, life for residents changed overnight. As in many other cities in Somalia, residents are now doing business and socializing on the streets after sunset.”
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