Shift from concentrated solar power to photovoltaic inexorable now

Several proposed big solar projects, including one in California, have switched from concentrated solar power (CSP) to the more familiar photovoltaic (PV). The trend now seems irreversible. Photovoltaic will now be the dominant technology usedfor big solar plants. CSP, with one notable exception, is losing out everywhere.

CSP reflects the heat of the sun off parabolic mirrors to a central tower where it creates steam to power turbines and thus create electricity. Its big advantage is that excess heat can be stored, often in molten salt, to be used to create power when the sun isn’t shining. But it has one big technological drawback. It needs water, lots of it and in deserts too. Obviously this puts CSP up against all the other interests competing for scarce desert water. Some CSP plants recycle water. This does decrease consumption, but still uses substantial amounts of water.

The other challenge CSP faces is the disruptive technology of solar photovoltaic. The PV market is competitive. Prices are plunging and will continue to do so. CSP used to be cost-competitive against PV but no longer is. It’s difficult to see how it ever will be again. Plus, PV uses way less water than CSP, which is another significant factor in its favor.

The recently approved Sonoran Solar Energy project in Arizona decided against using CSP and will now use PV. The proposed Blythe Solar Power Project in California has also decided to switch from CSP to PV. This was a huge loss of business for German solar giant Solar Millennium and probably a contributing factor in its recent filing for bankruptcy. The Blythe plant was supposed to be the first 1 GW solar plant in the world, but the switch to PV will slow development. Instead, a South Africa project may be first. Construction at Blythe has temporarily been suspended until right-of-way issues are resolved. It received $2.1 billion in loans from the federal government in 2011 but that’s not nearly enough for the entire project. I’m not able to determine if the loan is still valid after the project switched to PV.

Solar Millennium was the second German solar company to file for bankruptcy. Solon was the first. Germany has been a world leader in solar but these two bankruptcies have plunged their solar industry into chaos. Relentless competition and price-cutting from Chinese solar companies powered by government subsidies are the driving factors in the PV market now. Even Germany is no longer immune from what some say is Chinese dumping of PV at below cost prices.

There is one project that is still ostensibly committed to concentrated solar power, however. That is the behemoth Desertec Project which plans to install enormous amounts of CSP in North Africa and the Middle East, and use it to power Europe. Siemens, one of its backers, says it is still backing CSP. But Solar Millennium was to be its provider so it’s difficult to see where its CSP technology will come from now. Also, as an aside, Desertec has been remarkably tone-deaf in partnering with, or even involving in discussions those countries where it plans to install the solar. It may well be that political problems sink this project (if water issues don’t). After all, Desertec solar plants will use spectacular amounts of water in some of the driest areas on the planet.

If Desertec gives up on CSP, then it is effectively dead as a technology. If it chooses CSP, then it will probably limp along for a few more years. But for all practical purposes, this battle is over. PV has won.

(crossposted from IVN)

7 Responses to Shift from concentrated solar power to photovoltaic inexorable now

  1. Steve G Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    I just think with the discovery of perpetual motion permanent magnetic energy technology that the only real use of solar will be in smaller applications. The one thing about renewable energy that wind, water, and solar all have that is their single point of failure is their fuel source. If you have a wind generator and there is no wind, you have no power. If you rely on solar and the sun isn’t out, too bad either. And of course if you’re in the desert and can’t find water, you can’t extract hydrogen or make steam. Granted you still have to come up with that initial power to start up a magnetic generator, but once it’s going, unless you need to shut it off, it can keep on going never needing any more power to power itself and always producing more than it needs to keep on generating energy without any other fuel source required unless you stop it and then need to start it up again.

    • Bob Morris Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

      That’s why stored power is so important for renewable energy. It’s not one size fits all either. Some power can be stored in batteries long term, other power may only need be available for a few minutes, like for load balancing, etc. and be stored in capacitors, etc.

      • Steve G Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

        I think you’re stuck in the old renewable thinking of water, wind, and solar that when there is no water, wind, or solar, there won’t be any energy generation, not to mention the amount of space required to generate significant amounts of energy through wind, water, and solar. So for those methods, sure you need energy storage because a huge building would require a lot of space for traditional renewable energy methods. Magnets are different, require a lot less space, and require no further energy to power it beyond what the generator can produce because these generators require only 20% of the energy they produce to keep running. It would cut your energy bill more than half just by putting one of these units between your power meter and your fuse box and require you to make no power consumption sacrifices.

        • Bob Morris Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

          Is there a magnet device that will do this? beacon Power, unfortunately in bankruptcy now, has flywheels that sort of do what you’re talking about.

  2. Steve G Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    There are several that are working prototypes that I’ve seen videos for on Youtube. From what it seems from some of the builds that I’ve watched is that they’re pretty easy to make. Basically it’s the death of the internal combustion engine and energy production from a grid. We’ll all be driving electric cars with no plugs because they run on their own power source that never needs refilling. Maybe change the generator every couple of hundred years as the magnetic field in the magnets degrade. That’s about it.

    • Bob Morris Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 11:16 pm #

      Could you post some of the YouTube links here?

  3. Steve G Wed, Jan 11, 2012 at 12:50 am #

    Sorry I don’t know what they are anymore.