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July 23rd, 2009

Getting to concentrating solar thermal power’s potential

Published on July 23rd, 2009 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

A new report released by the World Resources Institute claims that an enormous solar energy resource remains largely untapped in the Southwest U.S. That’s hardly news. But interestingly enough, the WRI offers Congress ways to tap into this abundant resource.

It should be noted that WRI’s report focuses, without explanation, solely on one form of concentrating solar power: concentrating solar thermal. It’s unclear if WRI believes CST to be superior to other forms of CSP. Most of the institute’s recommendations and commentary could apply to CSP approaches, but, for the record, they refer only to CST. Here is WRI’s honey-do list for Congress:

  • Enact a price on carbon. CST currently is more expensive than coal and other fossil fuel sources. Because CST is a low-carbon technology, enacting a carbon price would help the technology compete with conventional sources. Cap-and-trade is one mechanism for developing a carbon price.
  • Fund RD&D. Research, development and demonstration support will facilitate cost reductions of materials and systems, including thermal energy storage, which can bring down costs to make CST competitive with conventional sources of baseload power.
  • Create a national Renewable Energy Standard. Currently, some states with RES have a solar “carve out,” or a percentage set aside that must come specifically from solar. These policies have accelerated deployment of CST in those states and increased utility confidence in the technology. A national RES, including a mandate for solar, would send a market signal to invest in renewables such as CST.
  • Push for CST in international technology partnerships. China, India and countries in the Middle East and North Africa have great potential for CST. As a promising option to reduce green house gas emissions and improve energy security, CST should be a priority in international collaboration on RD&D issues. For instance, the World Bank’s Clean Technology Fund includes a program dedicated to deploying concentrating solar thermal power.
  • Improve the grid and transmission system. Greater federal oversight of the electricity grid and/or improved coordination between grid operators will help bring CST power from the country’s prime CST areas, the Southwest to a broader area.
  • Consider alternative investment incentives. While tax credits are important, they are subject to periodic and uncertain renewal, which presents a challenge to investors. Moreover, in the current economy, tax-based incentives may not be as accessible to project developers as they have been in the past. Incentives such as feed-in tariffs, widely used in Europe, require utilities to pay renewable energy generators a fixed, above-wholesale price for the power they produce. Thus, feed-in tariffs directly raise the price paid for renewable generation and guarantees it a buyer over a period of time – a more stable signal to investors.

Sounds easy enough. Get on it, Congress.


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