Nuclear energy stakeholders have been cheering the goings-on over at the COP 28 climate conference, where the US has joined a new 20-nation pledge to triple nuclear capacity by 2050. Whether or not they make that goal depends on investor interest, and plenty of other players in the decarbonization field are competing for attention, too. That includes the US concentrating solar power startup Heliogen, which is introducing a new particle-based system with the aim of kicking fossil fuels out of hard-to-decarbonize industries.
Concentrating Solar Power Vs. Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy has enjoyed a special place in the modern energy landscape. Accidents and security risks aside, they provide the scale and 24/7 availability expected of fossil power plants, without the carbon emissions.
However, their role as a go-to decarbonizer has been undercut by wind and solar power. New energy storage and smart grid technologies are enabling wind turbines and solar panels to pull heavier duties, undercutting the rationale for building new nuclear power plants.
Concentrating solar power systems are in a particularly good position for heavy duty decarbonization because their energy storage capacity is built-in. Concentrating systems use sunlight to heat up a transfer medium, typically molten salt or a specialized oil, which doubles as an energy storage platform (see more CleanTechnica CSP coverage here).
Back in 2015, researchers from Imperial College in London took stock of the economic competition between concentrating solar and nuclear energy. Using a 15-year time frame in South Africa as an example, they found that the economic case favored concentrating solar on costs, with additional benefits in terms of “lower investment and environmental risks.”
“The results suggest that while nuclear power may be an important low-emissions power technology in regions with little sun, in the case of South Africa, CSP could be capable of providing a stable baseload supply at lower cost than nuclear power, and may have other non-cost benefits,” they concluded.
Building A Better (And Less Expensive) Concentrating Solar Power Plant
If you’ve come across any more recent studies, drop us a note in the comment thread. Cost aside, concentrating solar systems have caught on more rapidly overseas than here in the US, where a set of five Obama-era showcase projects failed to spark follow-on momentum among investors.
Nevertheless, the US Department of Energy has continued to hold a torch for concentrating solar power. The agency is particularly interested in the potential for concentrating solar power plants to replace the fossil fuels used in steelmaking and other heavy industries that require high heat.
The Energy Department has been working with Heliogen among other partners to tackle the high heat challenge. The company burst out of stealth mode in 2019 with a modular approach aimed at providing zero emission solar energy for steel, cement making and other industrial users. The system can produce electricity, green hydrogen or process heat, depending on the needs of the industry.
“Heliogen’s modular solution is designed to replace the use of fossil fuels in demanding operations. By combining AI-controlled concentrating solar thermal technology with long-duration thermal energy storage, Heliogen can provide dispatchable renewable energy for heat and energy-intensive operations,” the company explains.
Back in 2020, CleanTechnica took note of Heliogen’s use of supercritical carbon dioxide for its power system. The company also uses ceramic particles as an energy transfer and storage medium instead of molten salt or oil. Last year it earned a $39 million Energy Department award to construct a 5-megawatt demonstration of the new technology in partnership with the firm Woodside Energy.
In the latest development, Heliogen has achieved third-party validation data for its new automated heliostat control software, aimed at maximizing the efficiency of heliostat tracking in concentrating solar power plants.
A Secret Weapon For Concentrating Solar Power Plants
For those of you new to the topic, tracking refers to adjustments to the position of solar panels, enabling them to follow the sun during the course of a day. The tracking equipment takes energy to run, but that is more than offset by the gain in solar conversion efficiency.
A similar dynamic is at work in heliostat tracking, and Heliogen is looking beyond the potential to maximize its own operations. The software is heliostat-agnostic. Heliogen expects to license it for use by other concentrating solar power plants, both existing and in the planning stages.
“In a recent test, Heliogen’s closed-loop software was deployed on third-party heliostats, marking a first in the industry,” the company explained in a press release, referring to the Sandia validation process.
“This technology is pivotal in detecting optical inaccuracies and initiating autonomous correction, which can considerably improve the efficiency of existing CSP plants worldwide,” they added. “This represents a significant advancement in mitigating the primary sources of historical inaccuracy in heliostat orientation within the existing infrastructure of concentrating solar energy plants.”
Heliogen’s goal for the Sandia test was to reduce tracking errors to less than 1 milliradian. A milliradian is the unit of measurement used to assess very small angles such as those deployed in adjusting the targeting sights of firearms.
The software hit that goal and then some, coming in with a tracking error of just 0.33 milliradian.
As for widespread impact, Heliogen CEO Christie Obiaya underscored how the software could help accelerate the energy transition.
“This development is pivotal in widening the scope of our proprietary technology, enabling its application across government, industry, and new or existing solar projects, thereby advancing the decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors,” Obiaya said.
More CSP For The USA
Heliogen has had a bumpy fiscal ride this year, but signs of recovery have been emerging. In addition to the successful validation of its tracking software, last month the company won a slot among eight other semifinalists in the Energy Department’s American-Made Heliostat Prize competition. In October Heliogen also announced the completion of two critical milestones in support of its concentrating solar power demonstration plant, the Capella Project.
The Heliostate Prize competition aims to motivate private sector innovators to help reduce the cost of concentrating solar power. “Lowering the cost of heliostats supports the goals of achieving a decarbonized energy sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050 which will require the deployment of flexible and dispatchable generation and energy storage technologies, like concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) with thermal energy storage and high temperature process heat,” the Energy Department explains.
Heliogen won a slot in the competition for its work in assessing wireless heliostat control systems using widely available, off-the-shelf communications systems.
Cost-cutting measure developed by the other semifinalists include strategies to reduce the cost of the heliostat structure through the introduction of new designs, manufacturing processes, and materials.
The finalists will be announced in April next year so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo (cropped): Heliostats for concentrating solar power systems, courtesy of Heliogen.
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