Mark Twidell, Executive Director of the Australian Solar Institute, spoke recently with EcoGeneration’s Sally Commins about the concentrated solar thermal research projects.
Mark Twidell, Executive Director of the Australian Solar Institute, spoke recently with EcoGeneration’s Sally Commins about the concentrated solar thermal research projects being undertaken at the Australian National University and CSIRO, as well as the future of the solar thermal industry in Australia.
What are your thoughts, as the Executive Director of the Australian Solar Institute (ASI), on these new solar thermal projects at the ANU and CSIRO?
I think they’re very progressive and exciting. They’re both looking at addressing some of the fundamental issues that are required to be dealt with in order to reduce the cost of solar thermal electricity. Increasing state temperatures and new storage technologies are both critical parts of what the technology needs to deal with in order to be successful in the future, so to that extent, it is very exciting.
The ASI has contributed quite significant funding to the five concentrated solar thermal (CST) projects at the ANU and CSIRO. Does the ASI see a commercial future for such projects?
Very much so, we wouldn’t have funded them if we didn’t. The commercial success of solar thermal is all about being able to operate in a marketplace, and to do that it needs to lower its cost. Any project that is addressing a fundamental issue that will result in lower cost, we think has got commercial viability.
What are the top two steps that the solar thermal industry needs to take to be cost-competitive with traditional energy generation, or indeed other clean energy technologies?
It is a combination of technology and deployment. The CST industry needs to continue to address the technology of higher temperature and lower field cost. So that’s the cost of the mirror or the cost of the dish or the cost of the reflecting device.
There are two things that the solar thermal industry needs to look at. The first thing is working on developing the technologies that will lower cost, increase temperature, improve solar field cost, and improve the receiver technology (that is the device that actually receives the concentrated light). There are a number of companies that the ASI is supporting, and a number of different technologies that the ASI is supporting in that area.
The second thing is learning by doing. One of the ways of making something lower cost is to do it twice, do it three times, and so on. This is where the solar thermal industry needs to look for applications that make economic sense, and then use those applications as places to go down the learning curve through deployment experience.
Do you see a future for the large-scale deployment of solar thermal farms across Australia, particularly in light of the recent proposed carbon pricing mechanism announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard?
The answer to the first question is yes – solar thermal has got huge potential across Australia. It needs to start in places that make most economic sense, which in many cases is in locations that are currently running on diesel generation. Many remote communities and mining industries are currently running on diesel generation and they’re operating in desert areas where there is lots of sun.
If we can develop and demonstrate technologies that operate in those environments we will see the industry grow. A project that we’re funding at the CSIRO involves air-cycle technology, so there is no water involved. So that’s an excellent technology for desert environments where water isn’t required.
What a price on carbon does is it sends a signal to the market that investment in low carbon technologies that have cost reduction opportunities could be a good thing. And so it’s really important that investment enters the marketplaces to finance projects that underpin the research and development. A signal that investment in low emissions technologies is the way of the future is very important.
What has been the greatest achievement of the solar thermal industry in the past five years?
I think what the solar thermal industry has done in Spain is fantastic. They have taken advantage of a very generous policy environment, and that policy environment has had to adjust because it was costing Spain too much money. Having said that, the solar thermal industry has really taken advantage of that generous policy environment to start to show what the technology can deliver at scale.