The US solar tower and thermal storage technology developer SolarReserve has operated its first-of-its-kind Crescent Dunes plant in the US at its full capacity of 110MW, and is now targeting Australia as its next market.
The company said on Tuesday it had proposed to build a 110MW plant – with eight hours storage – just north of Port Augusta in South Australia, and had submitted the plan to the state government’s tender for low-carbon energy.
Solar towers and storage – as we have discussed here in relation to Crescent Dunes in Nevada, and here in relation to Sener’s Gemasolar 19.9MW plant in Spain – have the potential to radically change the nature of energy markets.
That is because they do not need fossil fuels, offer zero emissions energy and – because of their storage facilities – can deliver electricity whenever the grid operator or utility wants it.
In Nevada, with 10 hours of storage, that means delivering electricity into the Las Vegas grid from around noon to midnight.
In South Australia, it may mean delivering in the highest priced part of the market when demand is greatest. So it is likely to target the afternoon and evening peaks in summer, and not run in the morning. In winter, it could target the morning and winter peaks only.
When it says 8 hours storage, it means that the plant can run for eight hours each day at full capacity. In summer, it may be able to go nearly twice that long. It can also run 24/7 base load, but at a lower capacity, depending on the needs of the local grid.
SolarReserve says its proposed plant could supply Port Augusta and neighbouring towns with reliable solar power, day and night. It says the project would also create much needed jobs and economic development in the Port Augusta region, and would provide South Australia with new baseload power generation.
“As Australia moves away from coal, this is truly the only technology that has the capability of providing zero emissions and provide reliable power,” said Tom Georgis, the head of international development, who said the project had been proposed as part of the SA government tender.
“It is ideal for what the South Australia government is looking for, bringing innovative technology to Australia at a price point that makes sense,” Georgis told RenewEconomy in an interview on Tuesday.
SolarReserve is not revealing what that price point is, exactly. But it could well be around $US100/MWh, much lower than the $A200/MWh assessment made by Alinta, the owner of the Northern coal-fired power station that is about to be closed, when it looked at solar thermal options.
The Crescent Dunes facility was built at a price of $US135/MWh, with financing help from the US government, while the 100MW Redstone plant in South Africa, which is about to begin construction next month, will deliver at around $US120/MWh (depending on the fluctuating valuation of the local currency).
With each plant developed, the costs will fall further. SolarReserve is confident of winning tenders for two more towers in South Africa and four towers in Chile, where because of its excellent solar resources, that cost is falling below $US100/MWh.
Georgis says Port Augusta’s solar resource is very good, although not quite as good as Chile’s Atacama Desert. But the strong point for solar tower and storage technology in South Australia is the value of its storage, and dispatchable energy, in a market known for volatility and high variations in demand and supply.
South Australia, as discussed in this piece on Monday, has big changes in demand because of its relatively low level of industrial demand, and by later this year will source 50 per cent of its electricity from fluctuating but highly predictable wind and solar resources.
To fill in the gaps, it will use gas-fired generation – but this can be very expensive, as Mike Sandiford from the University of Melbourne pointed out – or imports from Victoria.
“The value of storage has not been properly recognised, but we think it will be in the not-too distant future,” Georgis said.
He was speaking from Beijing, where SolarReserve is looking for local partners as the Chinese government also makes a huge commitment to solar thermal technologies, also known as CSP or concentrated solar power. Solar towers and molten salt storage is one of those technologies.
China is planning to install 10GW of CSP technologies in Spain, including 1GW (1,oooMW) under a massive “pilot” program.
In a statement, SolarReserve said that Australia, with the highest average solar radiation per square meter of any continent in the world, is an ideal location for this advanced technology.
The company opened an office in Australia in 2013, to support the Australian market and develop a pipeline of projects. One proposal for the Port Augusta region was tendered into the ACT government’s next generation solar auction, but the ACT opted in the end for household battery storage.
It says the Crescent Dunes facility has 1,100MWh of capacity, which it says is about the same size as all of the world’s utility-scale batteries in operation today, combined. The facility will ramp up to its full annual output over the coming year.
“The validation of SolarReserve’s revolutionary solar energy storage technology is significant for the future of clean power generation on our planet,” the company says.
“This technology solves the intermittency issues experienced with other renewable energy sources, enabling the delivery of renewable baseload and dispatchable power that can compete head-to-head with traditional fossil-fired and nuclear electricity generation methods.”
CEO Kevin Smith said the Crescent Dunes facility could be used as a blueprint for projects in locations such as Port Augusta in South Australia.
“As renewable energy penetration grows, the need for cost-effective, utility-scale renewable generation with storage technology is becoming increasingly important for mitigating intermittency problems, delivering power into peak demand periods and supporting transmission system reliability,” Smith said.
The Port Augusta project, should it go ahead, will be located around 30kms north of the city.
The Repower Port Augusta Alliance, which has been representing strong community interests pushing for a solar tower and storage facility, said the South Australian and federal governments should capitalise on SolarReserve’s interest in building a similar facility in Port Augusta.
“SolarReserve’s American plant shows what could be possible here in Port Augusta creating new jobs and helping our community transition away from coal with day and night solar energy” said Lisa Lumsden, spokesperson for Repower Port Augusta said.
“Jay Weatherill has indicated federal and state government partnerships on renewable energy is a priority and working together to make solar thermal happen in Port Augusta is the perfect way to do it.”
Repower Port Augusta say existing policies like the state government’s low-carbon energy tender and the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency could be used to make solar thermal happen.
“The South Australian and federal government already have the policies in place to bring solar thermal to Port Augusta, what we need is the political will to do it” Ms Lumsden said.
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.