Frank ‘Tex’ Wilkins, Solar Thermal R&D Team Leader, U.S Department of energy, talks to CSP Today about what he believes are the most promising CSP innovations for 2010 and about which US government policies might break the current log-jam of CSP projects.
By Rikki Stancich in Paris
CSP Today: In your view, what are the notable technologies that have entered pilot phase this year? Are there any in particular that have caught your attention, and if so, why?
Frank Wilkins: The Maricopa plant is a good example of technology that has evolved to the point of generating clean solar power for people in Arizona. However, there are many other CSP R&D projects, albeit at smaller scale that also have my attention.
The Department of Energy has 27 contracts with industry and universities looking at a broad range of technology improvements in troughs, power towers, dishes, and linear Fresnel systems. We are working on improvements to solar collectors, receivers, glass and polymer reflectors, and storage.
Storage has become a major effort. We are looking at improvements in salt mixtures (for example, lowering the melting point and increasing the heat capacity), exploring latent heat options in phase change materials, as well as storage in solid materials and through chemical reactions.
These projects all offer the potential for lowering the cost of CSP technology and are indicative of the industry's interest in improving its product.
CSP Today: How many CSP projects are currently in the pipeline in the US and of these, how many are likely to become operational?
Frank Wilkins: The Solar Energy Industries Association keeps an up to date account of CSP projects that are being planned in the United States. The number keeps changing, of course, but the last time I checked there were nearly 40 projects that totaled over 10,500 MW.
Most of these have power purchase agreements or some contractual agreement that shows intent to build a project. Even with a power purchase agreement, however, there is no guarantee that a project will be built. Utility-scale CSP plants cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require a lot of land.
In addition to having a utility or other organization buy the power, developers need to attain a number of permits and project financing before they can begin construction. The state of the current financial market makes it very difficult for developers to find banks willing to lend large amounts of money on technology that has does not have many years of proven performance and which they have little experience.
Even so, I expect that there will be a number of projects that will begin construction in the next year. The Department of Interior has committed to help 14 CSP projects obtain the environmental permits required to build plants on Federal land by December 2010. These projects would occupy 60,000 acres and have a total capacity of over 6,000 MW.
There are additional projects being planned to be built on private land that also appear situated to begin construction by the end of 2010.
CSP Today: What needs to happen in order for more CSP projects to break ground?
Frank Wilkins: The developers that are working to get CSP projects under construction by the end of 2010 are having an unusually hard time because regulators and bankers are not familiar with their technology. Officials at the Federal, state, and local levels have to determine how CSP technology fits into regulations designed for fossil fueled power plants. New regulations are required or existing ones need to be modified.
Before that can happen, they have to understand all the details of CSP. The same is true for the financial community, which must understand the technology in sufficient detail to accurately assess the risk that would be associated with their investment.
In a sense, the developers have become educators. The education process and the development of new regulations take time. However, as the regulations are written specifically for CSP projects and bankers become familiar and comfortable with the technology, the next round of projects will get through the hurdles faster. As more and more projects are built, the cost of the power from CSP technology will decrease. That will also make it easier for future projects to get into the ground.
CSP Today: Obtaining a DoE loan guarantee seems to be a prohibitively expensive and time-intensive exercise in itself. What other (more accessible) government support is available to CSP project developers?
Frank Wilkins: Government support is doing a lot to support CSP project developers. State governments have created renewable portfolio standards which created a market for the technology.
The Department of Energy has a $50M research and development program that is directly helping developers improve the performance and reduce the cost of their technology. Through last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, DOE provided $50M to a number of CSP companies to help them improve and/or expand their manufacturing facilities.
DOE and the Bureau of Land Management are conducting a Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that has identified 24 solar study zones encompassing 676,000 acres (over 1,000 square miles) on Federal land that may be suitable for utility-scale solar projects.
As you mentioned, DOE also has established a Loan Guarantee Program to help developers obtain financing during this economic downturn. One CSP award has been announced ($1.377 billion to BrightSource Energy for 3 CSP plants totaling nearly 400 MW) and others are expected.
There is a Treasury grant program that could be worth 30% of the basis of the project to the developer. Although the Treasury program is scheduled to end at the end of 2010, there is a 30% investment tax credit for CSP projects that will be in effect until the end of 2016.
CSP Today: Is there any evidence of a CSP components supply chain growing in the US? Aside from the manufacturing tax credits are there any other incentives to kick-start the green economy?
Frank Wilkins: Schott built a facility to produce solar thermal receiver tubes in Albuquerque that began operation in 2009. As seen by the DOE manufacturing assistance awards, several glass companies are also anticipating a growing market for CSP components.
I expect that once the log-jam breaks and developers start building, there will be a number of components suppliers responding to the market.
Hear more from Frank Wilkins at the 4th concentrated solar power summit US, June 23-25, San Francisco.
For more information on how to attend, please visit the following website: www.csptoday.com/usa2010
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