An ARENA-backed, CSIRO-developed solar thermal demonstration project has notched up a significant win for the technology.

An ARENA-backed, CSIRO-developed solar thermal demonstration project has notched up a significant win for the technology, generating the highest temperature steam ever produced using energy from the sun.

The world-first achievement at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle, NSW, has been hailed as a game changing breakthrough for renewables, demonstrating solar’s potential to power steam turbines equivalent to those currently used by advanced coal-fired plants.

‘‘Instead of relying on burning fossil fuels to produce supercritical steam, this breakthrough demonstrates that the power plants of the future could instead be using the free, zero-emission energy of the sun to achieve the same result,’’ said CSIRO’s energy director, Alex Wonhas.CSIRO_solarthermal6

The $5.7 million project (to which ARENA contributed $2.8 million) is part of a broader collaboration with leading solar thermal developer Abengoa Solar to advance solar storage and deliver renewable electricity around the clock.

Comprising two test plants – which concentrate light from 600 mirrors into receiver towers where water is heated to produce steam that drives turbines – it has shown it is possible for solar thermal generated supercritical steam to reach temperatures of up to 570°C and pressure of 23.5 megapascals.

Project leader Robbie McNaughton says his team now plans to do more testing, under even more extreme conditions, to see how far they can push the technology.

“Achieving the critical combination of high pressure and high temperature is a giant step,” said ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht on Tuesday. “It demonstrates solar energy has the potential to effectively power the steam turbines currently used by advanced coal-fired plants.

“In addition to being a renewable energy world first, this landmark development stands to deliver greater plant efficiency as well as advance a diverse energy future for Australia.”

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The breakthrough also highlights the value of the CSIRO and ARENA, at a time when the Abbott government has pledged to scrap organisation entirely (ARENA), and cut funding to the other (CSIRO) by $111 million over four years in this year’s federal budget.

“CSIRO, ARENA and the private sector have achieved the solar-energy equivalent of breaking the sound barrier. Meanwhile, CSIRO and ARENA face the Abbott Budget axe,” said Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt in a statement on Tuesday.

“This project needs funding to continue developing its breakthrough technology, not least to commercialise these advancements, thereby bringing the country many more benefits.

“Imagine what our country could accomplish if our clean-energy industry had the resources, subsidies and support the Abbott Government lavishes on the non-renewable, dirty coal, mining and resources industries.”

Spain’s Abengoa – which broke ground on its 110MW solar thermal and molten salt plant in Chile last month – last week predicted that solar tower technology with storage would be competitive with baseload gas generation by 2020, and able to perform similar functions without the emissions.