Is the Future of CSP Dim?

Concentrated solar power (CSP) is an often overlooked method to generate electricity from the sun. As the name implies, CSP systems concentrate the sun’s energy, and do so with the use of reflective mirror surfaces. In commercial CSP plants, the concentrated sunlight is typically used to heat a working fluid which in turn generates steam to produce electricity via a steam turbine. Although commercial CSP plants have existed since the 1980s, a number of factors have hindered the technology’s penetration into the energy market. What are the factors holding this technology back? And (perhaps more importantly) is there any hope for the technology to grow in to a competitive source of electricity?

In recent times, photovoltaic (PV) prices have dropped dramatically, leading to a strong interest in installing utility-scale PV. This has also had the secondary effect of reducing the investment in CSP, since it is currently a more expensive method to generate electricity from the sun. Because of cost, investors have opted for PV over CSP – so much so that many planned CSP plants are instead being converted to utility-scale PV plants. Environmental factors have also had an effect. Last year, BrightSource Energy’s planned 500-megawatt CSP plant encountered an obstacle after surveyors discovered fossil deposits on the planned building site. Further concerns on the site’s impact on wildlife, as well as the cost of the plant forced BrightSource to put the project on hold.

However, CSP does have marked advantages over other forms of renewable energy. Of particular interest are the methods with which CSP can overcome intermittency problems. Power plants which combine CSP and traditional primary sources of energy can provide electricity day and night. Integrated thermal storage seeks to overcome this problem as well – the working fluid which drives the CSP plants can be stored in tanks and then utilized at a later time to generate electricity at night or during periods of low sunlight. This provides a greater flexibility to the grid than PV and wind typically provide. Recent studies back up this claim, showing that thermal storage adds a market value of up to $14/MWh, and a capacity value of up to $30.50/MWh.

Domestically, companies such as SolarReserve has taken advantage of thermal storage, and have projects underway which will prove the technology’s viability. Furthermore, the largest solar thermal energy generating facility in the world operates on both solar and natural gas and powers over 200,000 homes according to NextEra Energy Resources, the company that owns the facility. 

In total, over 1.4 GW of CSP plants were under construction in the US last year. Once operational, these projects will help to demonstrate the feasibility of CSP in the US. This information, coupled with the success of overseas companies (see Abengoa) and projects (such as in Abu Dhabi, Spain, etc.) will ultimately show the viability of CSP in the coming years. Therefore, although there is definitely hope for the technology to grow, its success will ultimately rely on the ability to drive prices down through methods such as thermal storage. Only then, it seems, will investors be more willing to add a greater share of CSP into the renewable energy sector.

(additional references linked in article)



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2 responses to “Is the Future of CSP Dim?

  1. lorenzogzz

    First of all I wanted to congratulate you on the quality of the post which I found to be very insightful and interesting. After reading this article, however, a single doubt comes to mind when trying to analyze the viability of CSP as a replacement for PV.
    You mentioned in the article that “In recent times, photovoltaic (PV) prices have dropped dramatically”. However, no mention is made as to the change in price of CSP as a result of the extensive investment made in this technology previous to the switch to PV.
    Could it be that we have identified several areas in which PV technology could be improved through further research whereas the CSP technology is already mature or at least not viable to invest in due to decreasing returns? It seems that there is much more information out there about the decrease in cost of PV whereas CSP has been largely neglected.

    • Hi lorenzogzz,
      Thanks for the reply. From what I understand (and I may be wrong here), it seems that at least initially, the development of PV was more easily driven by smaller scale investments and projects – PV’s direct sunlight-to-electricity is the benefit here. CSP on the other hand requires a larger physical area (and larger investment) to create a functional power plant in order to reach the temperatures required to run a more efficient power cycle. Furthermore, the efficiency of PV is driven largely by advancements in material science, where CSP is driven more by optimization of the thermal processes / plant layouts involved. There is room for growth in both fields – but the investments in and the maturity of PV have driven down the costs to what they are today. It’s yet to be seen how the more recent round of investments in CSP will directly translate in to cost reductions – in my opinion, it will be important to measure the success of companies such as SolarReserve to see how the technology will continue to mature. So we may have to wait and see. I’m sure there are a myriad other factors involved here too! Thanks.

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