File this one under I for I’m Not Dead Yet! Just a few years ago, concentrating solar power was looked upon with scorn by more than a few energy tech observers. Nevertheless, the US ramped up its interest in CSP during former President Barack Obama’s tenure, and it looks like President* Trump is looking to step the technology up to the next level. In the latest development, the Department of Energy has just announced a new round of $72 million in funding for a next-generation twist on CSP that could put coal, natural gas, and nuclear power generation out to pasture forever.
I know, right? Political observers have taken note that Trump’s policy goals are weirdly focused on upending programs championed by Obama regardless of the effect, but the Department of Energy is a weirdly notable exception.
What Is High Temperature Concentrating Solar Power?
The basic complaint about concentrating solar power has been that it is too complicated and expensive compared to photovoltaic cells. Instead of generating electricity in solar panels, CSP plants work by bouncing sunlight off a large field of mirrors.
All that sunlight is reflected onto a central point, where it heats a liquid such as a specialized oil or molten salt. That liquid is piped to a generating facility to become the heat source for creating steam, which powers a steam-driven generator. There, finally, is your electricity.
Despite the complicated system, the feature that has energy planners all excited is the hot liquid. In effect, the liquid doubles as an energy storage platform, meaning that a CSP plant can potentially generate electricity 24/7.
The problem tackled by the Department of Energy is this one: it’s not hot enough. The current technology only supports about 565 degrees Centigrade. That’s pretty hot, but it’s not efficient enough to help lower the cost of CSP. With higher heat, you get a shot at storing energy in thermochemical bonds and other fancy options.
That’s not a sustainable track if you’re depending on fossil fuels to get the higher temperature. The deployment of renewable energy puts a whole different spin on the situation.
Renewable or not, part of the challenge is how to get your systems to not fall apart under the stress of high heat.
The Energy Department’s Generation 3 CSP program is designed to take on those challenges, and that’s where the $72 million in new funding comes in. Here’s DOE with the explainer:
…Gen3 CSP high-temperature thermal systems have the potential to lower the cost of a CSP system by approximately $0.02 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), which is 40 percent of the way toward the solar office’s 2030 cost goals of $0.05 per kWh for baseload configurations. This cost target is highly competitive with other dispatchable power generators and would enable more solar to be connected to the grid while also increasing its value.
Did you catch that thing about “baseload?” That’s another criticism of CSP. After all that expense and effort, you still wind up with a centralized, baseload power generation model that doesn’t quite fit with the small scale, distributed generation vision of the future.
On the other hand, even if the role of baseload power plants is destined to shrink, realistically speaking they will still be around for the foreseeable future. As they age out, at least some of them will need to be replaced by other baseload facilities.
Don’t Hold Your Breath For High Temperature Concentrating Solar Power
During the Obama administration, the Department of Energy made a big deal about showcasing the country’s new fleet of conventional concentrating solar power plants. The agency has continued to make the case for CSP with Energy Secretary Rick Perry at the helm, including high temperature CSP.
The research on high temperature CSP is still in the piecemeal phase, and the latest round of CSP funding is aimed at integrating various components into assemblies that can be put into operation and tested.
That’s going to take a while. The $72 million in funding will kick off a two-year design phase for a test facility. Three teams have been selected for that phase, and at the end one of them will be awarded additional funding to construct the facility. The timeline calls for a three-year construction period.
Keep in mind this whole five-year period is just to get the point where you can put the technology through its paces, and you have a long way to go before commercialization.
If and when that happens, it’s going to make things mighty interesting for competing energy resources with baseload capability. Coal is already toast anyways, but natural gas and nuclear might want to not look back.
For some insider perspective on that, we’ve reached out to one of the Gen3CSP awardees, the Electric Power Research Institute, so stay tuned for an update.
Follow me on Twitter.
Image (screenshot): US Department of Energy.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Latest CleanTechnica TV Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.