By - Jim Vess

Concentrating solar could play a bigger role in electricity generation if costs are pared

Energize Weekly, February 13, 2019

Concentrating solar power (CSP), which has lagged in deployment behind photovoltaic solar, could play a bigger role by 2050 if the price of the technology could be halved, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), under its SunShot Initiative, has set a target of reducing the cost of CSP to 5 cents a kilowatt-hour (kWh) from the current 10 cents a kWh by 2030.

If the cost hits that target, CSP could account for as much as 16 percent of electricity generation by 2050, according to a new NREL report.

“At 5 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2030, DOE has chosen an aggressive target for CSP,” Mark Mehos, the CSP program manager at NREL and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “As greater levels of variable renewables, such as photovoltaics and wind, penetrate U.S. markets, the need for storage will grow. And CSP with built-in thermal energy storage can help fulfill that requirement.”

CSP plants use a large array of mirrors that encircle a tower, focusing the sun’s rays on a heat-transfer fluid in the tower, which can be used to spin a turbine or be held until needed, offering a large-scale form of energy storage.

A few CSP plants have been built mainly in the high solar resource Southwest, but utility-scale photovoltaic solar (PV), whose cost has plummeted to 6 cents a kWh, with a goal of reaching 3 cents a kWh hour by 2030, has been much more popular.

There have been 44 gigawatts (GW) of PV installed in the country, with projects in all 50 states, compared to 2 GW of CSP. PV hit its DOE 2020 SunShot cost target three years ahead of schedule. NREL projects cumulative PV capacity of 400 GW by 2050.

CSP has been making progress on its cost, dropping from 21 cents a kWh in 2010 to 10.3 cents a kWh in 2017. The most recent projects are coming in at 10 cents a kWh, according to NREL.

“However, given recent cost trajectories for other generating technologies and fuels, cost reductions for new CSP-TES [CPS with storage] would be needed for it to effectively compete with new low-cost PV, wind, and natural gas generators,” the NREL report said.

Even with cost reductions, NREL said new deployments for CSP would not come till the late 2020s, reflecting the need for more cost reductions and the limited need for new capacity before 2030.

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