Focusing forward

Multi-faceted overall CST strategy for Australia

Australia is indeed a privileged country in the global race to make a contribution to CST technologies.

Few countries in the world meet the conditions that can make Australia one of the strongest, if not the strongest, contributors to technologies that will shape the future of humankind. Some of these conditions and strengths are:

  • A workforce with substantial training, experience, and expertise in the main areas required to design and deploy commercial CST systems (civil, mechanical, thermal, and industrial engineering);
  • An innovative educational and research system, which ranks among the best in the world, well connected at the international level, with excellent research and testing facilities in many of the areas of interest, and, through ASTRI, a substantially increased understanding and expertise in CST technologies;
  • A national laboratory, CSIRO, with the required expertise in CST technologies, testing capabilities, size, international standing, management expertise, and scientific leadership to lead the Australian education and research community in achieving excellence in the CST field at the international level and to foster innovation in the field in close collaboration with industry;
  • A proven track record from that laboratory and its many extraordinary professional associates to share expertise in a collegial manner and to meet quantitative and qualitative goals which are aligned with the expressed goals of the scientific, political and business communities, as well as with the implied sentiment of the public;
  • An industry with substantial capabilities, experience, and expertise in civil, mechanical, thermal and industrial engineering, which can be redirected to address the need of the CST industry and to design, manufacture, and commercialise many components of a CST system and that is well connected at the international level;
  • Strong commercial and political ties with many of the most relevant markets for CST technologies (China, India, USA, South America, Middle East, North Africa and Europe) and a strategic location with respect to the most important markets; and
  • One of the most desirable direct solar radiation resources in the world with enough niche markets for CST technology applications to provide the necessary opportunities at the local level to nurture a national industry until it is ready to compete in the international markets.

To be sure, many challenges have arisen and many are likely to arise in the future. Some of those challenges could be interpreted as weaknesses if it were not for the fact that they have been faced, and are being faced, by the global community of experts in the field of CST technologies. Some of those challenges are:

  • Plummeting fossil fuel prices. This is largely, but not uniquely, the result of development of new technologies for extraction and exploitation of some fuels. The lower costs affect the generation costs from lower fuels. Their impact on the need for alternative energy sources for chemical and synthetic fuel processes may be equally important;
  • A dramatic lowering of costs of some competing solar technologies, and notably photovoltaics. This may be the result of extraordinary government price supports from major industrial economies. Whether this constitutes dumping or simply competitive advantages in terms of labour costs or other factors is not clear. It is not clear whether the lower costs are sustainable – only time will tell. However, the lower costs have had a negative impact on the financial attractiveness of the solar thermal technologies.
  • A global consensus is that greenhouse gas emissions are a real challenge, yet has had a paradoxically negative impact on concentrating solar technologies. A consensus can turn rapidly into slogans as substitutes for rational decision-making, and the need for decision makers “to do something” – and to do it cheaply and immediately – makes them look at apparently inexpensive solar technologies, without much judgment on the underlying assumptions and long term impact of their decisions.

One of the underlying assumptions is that some factors not directly expressed in terms of, say, cents per kW, are not easily understood by the general population. There are many people in the world who do not know the difference between kW and kWh – how can those people understand concepts such as “dispatchability”, the need for redundant generating systems to align supply with demand, and the likelihood that those redundant systems may burn a large fraction of the gas emitting fuel as the base plants they supplant?

It is not fair to expect from policy makers the ability to make correct decisions when the experts themselves seem to have difficulty arriving at general consensus on what parameters to use – and even more difficulty articulating that consensus when they arrive at one?

The environment in which decisions are made is dominated by conditions which vary, simultaneously and paradoxically, both very slowly and very fast. Some conditions, such as fossil fuel costs and the market price of PV panels, may vary very fast. Others, such as global warming, desertification, appear to change very slowly – until their impact is directly or indirectly felt in terms of draught and famine, war and pestilence, refugees and the collapse of social values.

Buffeted by contradictory observations and explanations, it is to be expected that decision makers with different stakeholders could stumble, change opinions, and directives. There is nothing unpredictable about the impact of such changes however. Communities of engineers and researchers conscientiously working towards carefully conceived goals find themselves changing direction and goals midstream through their work, with a negative impact on their generation of knowledge – and certainly on their accountability measures.

Before going on to enumerate the opportunities open to CST, it is fair and important to note the challenges of the water-energy nexus. Most energy generating systems consume water – and some consume large amounts. We do not need to emphasise that the regions where the solar resource tends to be higher are often those with the least water. Because of industrial inertia, most concentrating solar systems installed to date have been systems operating at so-called medium temperatures, and the thermal waste from those systems is often released in water. Although not all the water is “consumed”, much of it is. Somehow, researchers need to emphasise that the way to lower thermal losses is to raise the efficiency of conversion, which largely depends on operating temperature.

Dry cooling (i.e., cooling using air) is less efficient than water, but the advantages of solar concentrating systems are enough so that some of the most important solar thermal systems built in the world in the last few years have used dry cooling, and thus they use less water than any comparable system.

Regardless of those challenges (or “weaknesses”), the opportunities open to Australia are too large to ignore. In many ways, Australia is in a unique position to become a global world leader in technologies such as CST which are likely to shape the global energy future.

Some of those opportunities are based on Australia’s good fortune. On a world scale, as a large country by area, Australia has one of the largest (if not the largest) solar resource anywhere.

It is interesting to note that the challenges imposed by the energy-water nexus presents one of the most remarkable opportunities for Australian industry to make unprecedented contributions to the renewable energy market. Australian engineers and scientists know that the key to lower consumption in any thermal system – whether it is nuclear, fossil-powered, or solar thermal – lie not only in dry cooling but in increasing the operating temperature of the system. Nature can be very nasty when a nuclear engineer tries to increase the operating temperature of a nuclear system. Nature is only slightly less nasty when an engineer in a fossil fuel-powered system tries to do the same. To be sure, there are challenges in a solar thermal system also, but those challenges are qualitatively different. The effective temperature for solar radiation is higher than those attainable with fossil fuels, and much larger than anything a nuclear engineer would attempt to control.

There is nothing “magic” about increasing the operating temperature of a system. It is an engineering challenge, but that is it all it is – and it is one that can be approached safely and incrementally. This represents a rarely recognised opportunity for Australian scientists: if a system can be designed to operate effectively and economically in the Outback – and we know that it can – then, it can also operate in regions such as the Sahara, Gobi, Atacama, arid India – and such a system will have a market where it is needed.

Another opportunity lies in solar chemistry and processes, and in particular in synthetic fuels and the improvement of traditional fuels such as coal. During the horrors of WW II, rockets were fired and weapons were manufactured by the Nazis through processes such as the Lurgi process, which converted poor-quality fossil fuel into fuel for the rockets and the tanks. Such processes involved burning fuels such as naphtha to drive endothermic reactions to add hydrogen to the hydrocarbon molecules. With the horrors of the war, the environmental horrors of such processes did not merit much attention: fossil fuels were burned to improve fossil fuels, and therefore there was a double penalty on the environment. However, there is nothing that suggests that endothermic reactions such as the ones in the Lurgi process cannot use clean solar energy as the driver, and some of the work being done in Australia shows promise in this direction. Those coal rich mines have the potential to turn Australia into an exporter of high quality fuels instead of simply cheap fuel.

Some of the other opportunities afforded by the conditions in Australia should be evident even to those not directly interested in energy studies.

  • As stated in the previous section, according to the latest version of the International Energy Agency road map (IEA, 2014a), CST plants will be the dominant technology in the future for Middle East and African countries and they will play a significant role in other regions. The IEA also predicts that together PV (16%) and CST (11%) could become the largest producer of electricity worldwide before 2050 (IEA, 2014b). Because of its geographical location and industrial ties, Australia is uniquely positioned to access to those markets and to size a relevant fraction of the global CST energy business.
  • Process heat and solar chemistry are much more than niche markets for CST technologies. In Australia those markets, in combination with the electricity market, will provide the necessary opportunities to develop a national CST industry that will later be able to compete internationally.
  • For a modern and industrialised country like Australia, with the appropriate human capabilities in CST developed mainly thanks to the first 4-years of ASTRI, to adapt its engineering, power, construction, metal, automotive and glass industries, among others, to the requirements of the emerging CST industry is relatively easy. A paradigmatic example in that regard is Spain where, in 2007 the first commercial CST plants installed in Spain had a local content of 60%, while in 2012 the last CST plants installed in Spain had a local content of more than 80%. This can easily be replicated or even improved in Australia.

None of these opportunities can ensure that the path to realise Australia’s great potential in CST will be realised, of course. There are many reasons why such potential may never be realised. In the portfolio theory of investments, variance of returns is used as a measure of risk, and is one of the two major variables in effective portfolio management. Large risk is not good. Its impact on decision makers and on technical development is not as amenable to analytical treatment as investment portfolios, but many development paths with great potential have been closed because of uncertainty and indecision.

Considering all of the above, we are in a position to try to elaborate what a comprehensive CST strategy for Australia should be.

We suggest that the goals of a comprehensive CST strategy for Australia should be centred around:

  • Development of a competitive CST export industry and ecosystem;
  • Development of technologies suited for regional conditions that match conditions of much of the developing world, such as aridity and distance from large urban markets;
  • Use of CST electricity plants to progressively replace obsolete coal plants and advance the decarbonisation of Australia’s electricity sector; and
  • Use of CST technologies to exploit market niches in Australia such as:
    • Electricity
    • Heating and cooling
    • Process heat at high temperatures, and
    • Solar fuels and other solar chemistry or metallurgy applications.

The last niche includes the possibility of developing technologies to add value to the country’s most important fossil fuel resources – coal and shale.