Spain-based renewable energy giant Abengoa is looking to build a 20 MW solar thermal tower plant with storage in Australia – in what would be a ground-breaking development for the technology in Australia.

Abengoa, which is already building similar, although larger plants in Chile and South Africa, is looking to build the plant at Perenjori, a small village about 350kms north of Perth, on the edge of Western Australia’s main grid and near a booming mining region.


The company has secured $450,000 in funds from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to conduct a feasibility study for the project, which would be connected to the South West Interconnected System (SWIS), and could offset expensive grid upgrades, and avoid the cost of transporting expensive fossil fuels.

Solar thermal power with storage is considered to be the next big breakthrough for renewables, given that it can deliver dispatchable energy at scale, and according to Abengoa, and others, will be able to do so at the same cost of baseload gas as early as 2020.

That would allow the plants to match the role of gas – delivering either baseload power or fast-response output in response to variations in demand and supply – at the same cost, but without the emissions.

Solar towers are considered to be the best technology to deliver those results, although parabolic troughs are also used.

Abengoa recently completed the 260MW Solana project – parabolic trough with storage – in California, and is currently building a 110MW solar tower with storage facility in Chile for the mining industry, and a 100MW and another 50MW facility in South Africa.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said the solar thermal tower and a molten-salt energy storage system could supply power to a mining operation and the remote community of Perenjori.

“The choice of Perenjori is consistent with the research conducted in the ARENA-funded ‘Breaking the Solar Gridlock’ study that shows solar thermal could eliminate the need for network augmentation in more than 70% of the cases examined,” he said in a statement.

“The site has a world-class solar resource and end-of-grid connection of a solar thermal power plant with storage would provide significant network benefits. Storage will allow the plant to generate electricity when needed and match evening peak demand on the SWIS.”

Frischknecht said the project has the potential to uncover valuable learning for future solar thermal projects. Another feasibility study is being undertaken in Port Augusta, where the local community is keen to replace the ageing coal fired generator, and solar thermal was also being considered at the old Collinsville coal generator near Townsville, where a hybrid solar thermal, solar PV and gas project was on the drawing board.

A local Australian technology, using smaller towers developed by Vast Solar, has also received funding from ARENA for a 1MWe demonstration project in western NSW. Meanwhile, Solar Reserve, which is about to complete the world’s first 100MW plus solar tower with storage project in Nevada, has opened an office in Perth to consider similar projects.

Frischknect said the Abengoa feasibility study would assess heliostats (mirrors that reflect the sunlight on to a collector) developed by the CSIRO, as well as local supply chain opportunities.

Frischknecht noted that the CSIRO technology was developed with ARENA support as part of funding for Australia’s world leading solar research programs.

“It’s another example of how ARENA invests across the innovation chain to bring emerging Australian technologies towards commercialisation,” he said.

However, the ultra conservative Australian federal government recently announced it wanted to close ARENA as part of its program to dismantle all incentives, institutions and research for renewable energy in the country. The carbon price and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation are also targeted for closure, and the renewable energy target is also certain to be cut or curtailed.

The involvement of Abengoa is interesting as the company effectively withdrew from Australia several years ago in frustration at the confusing policy, and the inefficacy and mismanagement under the then Labor government of the Solar Flagships program.

That led to Australia effectively handing the opportunity to lead in solar thermal to other countries. This was despite the government’s own Energy White Paper predicting that solar thermal could account for 16 per cent of delivered electricity by 2050. The IEA has an 11 per cent global target for solar thermal by the same date.

Frischknecht said Abengoa had looked at numerous sits for its technology and Perenjori was considered the most attractive. That’s because of the costs of competing technologies, its ability to deliver electricity to mining operations, and because its location at the end of the grid could add value by avoiding costly upgrades to the poles and wire network.

Frischknecht said – given the opportunities to allocate capital in other countries such as Chile and South Africa and the US – ARENA’s involvement was critical in encouraging Abengoa to explore more deeply the project economics in Australia and “whether it made sense”

This would include detailed engineering and design, permitting, demand and offtake agreements, and quotes for the local supply chain.