It’s been just over a year since French nuclear giant Areva bought out the aspiring solar thermal energy developer Ausra, but the purchase of the Californian-based company with the Australian-grown technology may be about to pay dividends.
On Wednesday, Areva announced it had confirmed financing details with the federal government and its joint venture partner CS Energy for a 44MW solar booster project at the Kogan Creek coal-fired power station on Queensland’s Darling Downs. The company hopes that it will be the first of a string of projects to be announced in Australia, the Middle East, India, Africa and the US over coming months that could lead to $1 billion of revenue within 3-5 years, and set Areva on its way to becoming a leading player in the global solar energy market. It’s pitching all its solar hopes on this one technology.
The Kogan Creek Solar Booster project gave Prime Minister Julia Gillard a wonderful new photo opportunity, and the government some hope that one of the many projects to which it has allotted grants may finally come to fruition. The $105 million project, which will begin construction in the next few months and be completed by 2013, will receive $32 million from the federal government’s renewable energy demonstration program, as well as $35 million from a Queensland government fund. CS Energy will contribute the rest.
The project was originally announced last year as a 23MW facility, but improvements in the final design and in the technology since it was first awarded the grant means that it will be able to run at a capacity of 44MW at peak solar times. That makes it the largest project of its type in the world, and the first commercial-scale operation for Areva Solar, which previously had an 8MW booster plant at the Liddell power station in NSW and a 5MW Kimberlina demonstration plant at Bakersfield, California, where much of its recent technology improvements have been achieved.
The technology, conceived by Dr David Mills at Sydney University, before he and his partners moved to California in the search of venture capital, is known as Compact Linear Fresnel (CLFR) which uses modular flat mirrors to focus the sun’s heat onto centralised receivers, where water flowing through a system of tubes is boiled, producing steam. The major achievements over the last 12-18 months has been upgrading the ability to deliver medium pressure, saturated steam to be able to provide high pressure, superheated steam (400°C), a breakthrough that will increase its range of applications, including to industrial ones and lower its costs.
Areva says booster projects such as that at Kogan Creek are particularly attractive because they reduce the levelised cost of electricity to 30 per cent below that of stand-alone solar thermal power plants, mostly because they take advantage of existing infrastructure (including grid connection) and they can be built in a year or less.
Areva says these sort of projects will allow the company to deploy rapidly in the 30MW-50MW project range, increase the customer’s comfort level with the technology and ability to deliver – a crucial step towards executing on a large scale basis. It sees plants on a scale of around 100MW-140MW would be an optimum size for this type of facility.
Still, the ability to deliver super-heated steam means that the technology can also operate on a stand-alone basis. It is still in the running in the government’s solar flagships contest, with a stand-alone 250MW facility that it proposes to develop with WindProspect, also in Queensland. It has also been involved with the Midwest Solar consortium in WA, although it is unclear where that project is heading at the moment.
Solar thermal has taken a back seat to solar PV in recent years, thanks to the generous government incentives that have caused a massive increase in scale in the PV industry, and huge reductions in costs, driven also by price pressure from Chinese manufacturers.
Areva believes its technology is the lowest CSP (concentrated solar power) offering on the market, although that remains to be seen, because not much of any solar thermal technology has been developed at scale. Certainly, it uses the least amount of land. It claims it generates up to three times more peak power per hectare of land than competing solar technologies. This high energy density translates into lower costs, a smaller environmental footprint, and an ability to produce a simple, modular system that is easily scaled.
“I think there is space for both solar PV and solar thermal,” says Tom Bartolomei, senior vice president at Areva Solar. “Everyone recognises the improvement in PV in cost scales – as we enhance our skill sets in building these things, that’s where we will get better value per megawatt hour. That will take time.” He says installation costs for booster systems will likely come in around $1,500 to $2,000 per kilowatt, while those for standalone units will be between $3,000-$4,000/kW.
Cross posted from Peak Energy.