Saturday, January 31, 2009

So Much For "Solar Baseload"

One of the most-hyped renewable energy technologies of the moment is CSP--concentrating solar power. Joe Romm, in particular, is an unabashed CSP booster who has gone so far as to claim that CSP will be "the technology that will save humanity" and that this "solar baseload" make new nuclear builds unnecessary. However, CSP is already failing to live up to the hype.

One of the most advertised of the various companies promoting CSP is Ausra. This company was founded by Australians and financed largely by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Ausra was notable for its excessive braggadocio, claiming that within a few years its technology would be cheaper than all other alternatives. In recent weeks, however, Ausra has essentially admitted that these claims were merely so much hot air. Ausra CEO Robert Fishman announced that Ausra was scaling back its plans to build large plants, instead focusing on equipment sales. According to the Mercury News, "Fishman said Ausra will build small plants for companies that need industrial steam or electricity." So far from building huge CSP plants with storage that could offer a form of baseload power, Ausra is now planning on providing process heat to factories and auxiliary capacity to existing steam plants--a far cry from its ambitious plans a few years ago. Indeed, Ausra is laying off employees whose expertise was in large power plant construction in light of their new strategy.

Ausra still plans to complete its 177MW plant in Carrizo, California, but henceforth it plans to concentrate on decidedly "non-baseload" applications. Whether this business plan will work remains to be seen (efforts to market similar technologies in the 1980s fizzled), but this is a sign that their technology did not live up to expectations. Particularly interesting is the fact that the new applications that Ausra is marketing its collectors for do not involve storage--suggesting that their ambitious plans to store steam geologically were far from the "trump card" they had claimed. Clearly, Ausra is now paying dearly for its hubris.

Although Ausra has been mum on the issue, I have a suspicion that their solar concentrators have probably failed to perform up to expectations. DOE tested similar solar concentrators in the early 1980s and concluded that the cost advantages of the fresnel reflectors weren't worth the tradeoff in reduced performance. If the concentrators had performed well at Ausra's test facilities I suspect that it would be widely advertised in Ausra's marketing, so its reticence (and its difficulty attracting utility-scale orders) suggest some problems in this arena.

While Ausra is far from the only player in the CSP field and as such it ought not be conflated with the entire industry, well-apprised figures say that it is likely that many other firms are in similar straights. "I think it's going to be a brutal, brutal year for solar, and a lot of companies will go out of business," said Andrew Beebe, the CEO of Suntech Energy Solutions, which develops solar-power facilities for corporations and utilities. "A lot of mistakes were made. Now is the time of reckoning, and it's going to be ugly." Far from being poised to save the world, the solar industry is apparently fully occupied trying to save itself.


DV8 2XL said...

"'s going to be a brutal, brutal year for solar,.."

What did they expect? Physics always bats last, and anyone that knows physics knew talk of 300MW + solar plants was nonsense. Did the industry think that those who would have to invest in these projects were as gullible as the public?

Finally now industry is positioning itself the way it should have from the start, as auxiliary to fossil-fuel generation, instead of pretending it was going to be the other way around. Fortunately this will place the tax breaks where they should go, (to the extent they are needed at all) in the hands of those generators that will use this technology as it should be; when they can see a clear advantage for doing so.

Now we just have to wait for the other shoe to drop on wind.

Kirk Sorensen said...

Great post!