By Dave Elliott
With costs falling rapidly, PV solar is moving ahead fast and some see it as likely to become a major renewable source in the future, if not the dominant one. The World Energy Council notes that in its new Symphony global energy scenario, “by 2050, globally, almost as much electricity is produced from solar PV as from coal,” and Shell’s recent “Oceans” scenario saw solar as being the largest single energy source globally by 2060. (more…)
By Dave Elliott
There have been reports that the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii) had abandoned its plan to help support the development of solar power in the Sahara and the export of some to Europe, since it looked as if the EU could meet most of its green energy needs indigenously, without significant imports. So is the desert CSP/supergrid idea dead? (more…)
By Dave Elliott
China is pushing ahead with renewables on a very large scale, with renewables and other non-fossil fuel options expected to provide around 15 % of its total energy needs by 2020: the nuclear programme is a small part of that, aiming to get to 4% of electricity by 2020. Renewables already supply 17%.
Wind power is the big new thing. There is 62 GW of capacity installed so far- way ahead of every other country. And that’s just the start. The Chinese Wind Power Development Roadmap 2050 stipulates that China will have 200 GW installed wind capacity by 2020, 400 GW by 2030, and 1,000 GW by 2050.
However, it is trying to refocus what has so far been something of a uncontrolled boom, with, for example, insufficient attention having been paid to proving the necessary grid links. The result has been that, although China had over 42 GW of wind capacity installed by the start of 2011, only an estimated 31 GW was grid-linked. Many of these projects, most of which were in remote areas in the North West, poorly served by grid links, were often unable to dispatch their full potential output to users, most of whom are in the major urban areas on the coast. This issue is now being addressed- the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011 – 15), includes significant investment in grid infrastructure.
PV ‘cheaper than oil’ in Gulf
Falling costs of photovoltaic (PV) technology mean that solar energy is already a more economically attractive option for domestic electric power generation in the Gulf Cooperation Council Region (GCC) when compared to oil-fired electricity production. So said a White Paper published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which modeled the use of a 100MW PV project built in 2011 to displace oil-fired power generation, freeing that oil to be sold at world market prices.
The central scenario for PV capital cost was based around the 2010 global lowest price of $3.14 per Watt, but that will fall, with, it’s suggested, the cheapest bankable systems in 2011 likely to be developed and built for $2.73/W with prices falling further thereafter, according to the established ‘experience curve’ for PV technology.
It was calculated that a PV project in the GCC would generate a real internal rate of return (IRR) of 9.4% if oil prices rise to $163/bbl (in real 2010 terms) by 2030. Even in the case of flat real oil prices to 2030, the project would generate a rate of return of 4.6%.
Michael Liebreich, Bloomberg New Energy Finance CEO, commented ‘This exercise demonstrates the clear argument for large-scale deployment of PV in the Middle East region. The continued cost decline of PV will open up electricity markets in the Gulf extremely quickly.’
The study concluded that GCC states should be replacing the use of oil-fired electricity generation with large-scale and distributed photovoltaics, and earmarking their oil for sale on international markets. But even there they may face new challenges.
An expert group on future transport fuels presented a report to the European Commission showing that alternative fuels have the potential to gradually replace fossil energy sources and make transport sustainable by 2050. Expected demand from all transport modes could it said be met through a combination of electricity (batteries or hydrogen/fuel cells) and biofuels as main options. Synthetic fuels (increasingly from renewable resources) as a bridging option. Methane (natural gas and biomethane) as complementary fuel and LPG as supplement.
The Bloomberg Paper is at www.bnef.com/free-publications/white-papers/
The next stage- exporting solar power
Using solar to replace oil for generating electricity in the Middle East is just the first step. Longer term they could be exporting it. PV is only part of the story. Several large Concentraing Solar Power (CSP) arrays are being built- e.g Egypt has a 150 MW Kuraymat hybrid solar- gas project. And more are planned. For example, Israel and Jordan have been developing CSP, the UAE is planning a 100MW project, and the Egyptian National Plan for 2012 includes a 100MW CSP plant in South Egypt, while the follow-up National Plan for 2018-2022 has 2,550 MW of CSP. Although most plants at present have gas-fired back up, molten salt heat stores can be used to capture some of the daytime solar heat to run the generators overnight- so offering 24/7 power.
Although, inevitably, oil still dominates their thinking, most oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have made commitments to energy diversification e.g. the UAE is aiming to get 7% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, while Egypt is aiming to get 20% of its power from renewables by 2020, much of which it has already achieved via large hydro (12%), but solar and wind are seen as the main new options.
Exporting power long distances (e.g. to the EU) via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) supergrid links is relatively efficient (energy losses are put at around 2% per 1000km) and there is a German led Desertec Initiative to link up CSP in desert areas in the Middle East and North Africa to the EU. It aims to get about 15% of the EU’s power from such sources, with political links being made via the Med Unions ‘Solar med’ programme. Exporting power eastwards is also an option – to India and even China.
The Middle East has sun and oil. The first may soon begin to replace the last. It also has sand, and silica can be used to make solar cells. So the Middle East, along with North Africa, could become major producers of PV systems. The UAE’s Masdar project has already established some PV cell production and this could grow rapidly as the world market for PV expands – it is one the fastest expanding areas in the energy field at present.
Indeed, there are plans for a ‘Sahara Solar Breeder’ project, aiming to use desert sand to produce PV solar units and desert sun , using the power generated by the first wave of plants to “breed” more silicon manufacturing and solar energy plants, which would in turn be used to breed yet more, in a “self-replicating” system. www.diginfo.tv/2010/11/24/10-0135-r-en.php
It seems clear that the PV solar market is going to be big, and countries with plenty of sun, land and sand are a good place to exploit it. A big issue is whether the new political regimes emerging in many of these locations will see solar energy as a way forward- rather than just relying on oil.
The political turmoils in Middle East and North Africa may lead to the emergence of more progressive policies, but in the short term some see them delaying or undermining the case for ‘Destertech’ Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) electricity export projects- why would the EU want to become reliant on imported power from (another) politically unstable area? The counter view is that there is no need for the EU to become dependent on this source- all that was being suggested was around a 15% contribution and that could opportunistic i.e. when prices were low there and high in the EU e.g. matching their peak supply and EU peak demand times. In any case, CSP projects (and maybe Concentrating PV projects) are likely to go ahead locally anyway, since there are many local benefits, not just energy and jobs, but also the option of desalination of sea water.
Neil Crumpton has outlined an ambitious bio-energy future, based on solar driven bio (algae) oil production, and the use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to achieve carbon-negative energy generation.
While he sees Concentrated Solar Power and wind power as major global energy solutions, he believes that combining desert-based algae production with CCS could become a global scale carbon-negative climate solution.
He sees Seawater Greenhouses or similar desert-based low-tech structures as potentially ideal for algae production in photo bio-reactors.
The ‘Seawater Greenhouse’ is a solar-driven technology which uses adapted greenhouses (low-cost polytunnels) to desalinate seawater in arid regions to provide suitable growing conditions for food – or energy crops like algae.
Seawater is evaporated by drawing the hot desert air through a wetted cardboard wall in one side of the greenhouse. The cooled humid air passes over the crops and condenses to provide water for the crops. The humid air is then expelled from the greenhouse and can be used to improve the growing conditions for nearby outdoor plants: www.seawatergreenhouse.com. Sunny locations near the sea would obviously help, but the cost of piping sea-water long distances inland may not be significant.
The ‘Sahara Forest project’ is a supercharged variant of this concept, which would link huge greenhouses, potentially for growing algae, with concentrated solar power (CSP), which uses mirrors to focus the Sun’s rays and generate heat and electricity. The combination of these desert technologies would provide more energy for evaporation, pumping and algae production – and desalinated water for mirror cleaning, CSP cooling and algae production.
Further potential synergies could lead to higher bio-oil yields, says Crumpton. The thermo-chemical liquefaction and the trans-esterification of the algae ‘soup’ to produce bio-diesel could be achieved by heating some algae types to 300 °C under pressure for 30 minutes – just the job for CSP technology: www.futurity.org/earth-environment/pressure-cook-algae-to-make-better-biofuel/. Also, reject CSP heat could be used in power direct CO2 air-capture devices and the CO2 could be bubbled through the algae soup to enhance production.
Crumpton says that by 2040 bio-oil from such desert-based bio-energy systems, if proven, could be shipped to gas turbine or fuel cell/CCS gasification schemes in countries with more variable renewable energy resources (e.g. Europe), to provide reliable and carbon-negative daily grid back-up and strategic energy reserves.
By 2040, bio-oil importing countries could have extensive CCS infrastructure, deployed initially to abate gas and coal power stations and industry in the 2020s. A recent study of North Sea CCS deployment and storage potential estimated that there might be about 450 mt CO2 per year injection capability by 2050. Crumpton estimates that this could equate to a carbon-negative potential of up to 2 tonnes per UK resident per year. He sees coal and gas CO2 sequestration as paving the way for, and potentially being replaced by, CO2 sequestration from bio-energy gasification, including imported algae.
It sounds pretty ambitious, but many of the components are in place or under development. CSP technology is moving ahead rapidly. New CSP technology, such as the ‘Mulk’ curved aluminium sheet mirror system, may achieve significantly lower costs compared to conventional glass troughs, by reductions in system weight and other design and construction benefits: www.mulkre.com.
Several experimental Seawater Greenhouse projects have been tried and tested. Soon the world’s first commercial Seawater greenhouse will be completed in Australia: www.seawatergreenhouse.com/australia.html.
Also algae production is picking up, for example Argentine company Oilfox has opened the country’s first plant to make biodiesel from algae, which it claims can be grown using seawater. There have been reports that a Texan company, Petrosun, has developed an algae-to-biofuels facility using a series of saltwater ponds spanning 1,100 acres.
CCS in geological strata remains unproven at large scale, and is sometimes seen as undesirable if it simply facilitates unchecked fossil fuel use, but the carbon negative bio-oil application proposed by Crumpton might give CCS a new renewable direction. Trials are also underway to enhance algae production by bubbling captured carbon dioxide through the algae ‘soup’. The Carbon Trust has launched a major algae R&D project funded by DECC.
Using deserts, algae and seawater would certainly avoid most of the land-use and biodiversity conflicts that have bedevilled biofuels so far, although there could still be conflicts with food growing that might otherwise be done in the seawater greenhouses.
Neil Crumpton has worked for Friends of the Earth and more recently the Bellona Foundation, which is a partner in the Sahara Forest project. He is currently a consultant to B9 Coal, which is a fuel cell/gasification CCS power-station project development company.
Colleagues from the Energy and Resources Group in Berkeley tell me that California and the Western States can be supplied to a significant part by concentrated solar power (CSP) in 2022 – at least upon the implementation of a carbon tax > $40/tCO2. CSP is also part of the suggested EU-supergrid. Is CSP the second renewable energy technology after wind that breaks through? Let us contrast the abstract macro-economic modeling with a business perspective. Here some insights that I gained from a financial analyst, Shujia Ma.
How does CSP compete with other energy sources?
A CSP plant can be compared with a gas plant where heat steam drives a turbine. The CSP plant itself is currently more expensive than the gas plant but no fuel costs have to be paid for – solar energy is free. In this regard, CSP is similar to photovoltaics (PV). In contrast to current PV installation, CSP relies on economies of scale and is supposed to be cheaper. However, due to its plant characteristics, additional transmission lines are needed that are not required for roof-top solar panels. CSP and wind operate in different market segments, as CSP operates more in peak demand times whereas wind is mostly available at night (in California).
What are the challenges that limit CSP deployment?
For the US, currently financing is the dominant challenge. The few banks that have sufficient resources are reluctant to lend money. Another problem is state regulation which is often very slow in processing applications. The market for CSP is relatively weird, as only two firms control important parts of the supply chain such as mirrors or tubes (part of the heat transfer system). More competition in the supply market would bring down costs significantly.
Can technological progress bring down the price of CSP closer to grid parity?
Yes. Advancement in materials will lower the price for CSP deployment. However, Solar Millenium is mostly a developer and does not have sufficient resources for extensive research. The CSP business relies on R&D from public research agencies such as NREL.
That leaves open the question what role policies play. The current renewable portfolio standards (RPS) of the western US states clearly pushes utilities to purchase large-scale renewable capacities, including CSP, and by thus developing the market. Important condition here is that the RPS is actually enforced. It is ironic that the US currently relies much more on this regulatory approach, and that is Europe that builds on market instruments. In fact, also in the US, a combination of carbon price and feed-in tariff, providing long-term reliable incentives for investors, could brighten up the market for CSP and other renewables. A US-Europe comparison is somehow narrow: Given low labor costs (important for CSP), good solar resources, fewer transmission line problems and the potential availability financial resources from the government and uncomplicated procedures, also China may turn out to become an important CSP player.