Last week, Spain’s Gemasolar solar power plant became the first of its kind to successfully feed an uninterrupted supply of energy into the grid over a 24-hour period. The utility-scale plant has only been in commercial operation for a few weeks but it is already demonstrating that concentrated solar power systems (in conjunction with storage technologies) are able to generate an electricity supply that is continuous, reliable and clean.

How did they do it? The plant utilizes concentrated solar thermal (CST) technologies in conjunction with a storage system (a thermal-transfer technique developed by SENER) to store solar energy in molten salt; this allows the plant to generate electricity even when there is no sun. If solar plants are to deliver energy in a way that is comparable to that of conventional fossil-fuel power plants then they need to be able to generate power at night or during periods of cloud cover – plants like Gemsolar are proving that existing technologies are able to cope with fluctuations in energy supply. Currently, Gemasolar operates on a 19.9 MW steam turbine and is able to supply electricity to a population of 25,000 households. Eventually, the plant will be able to supply 24 hours of uninterrupted production per day on most summer days, providing a higher annual capacity factor than most baseload plants such as nuclear power plants.
Whilst it is true that the price of power generated from a solar plant is not yet as cheap as it would be out of a coal-fired plant – Gemsolar is starting out at a capital cost of around $18 a watt – these solar plants are in their infancy and have been built (in large part) with the goal of proving the technology. Australia shouldn’t be scared off large-scale solar by these early figures. First of all, we will be avoiding the environmental, economic and social impacts associated with unsustainable levels of CO2 emissions. Second, the technologies are already moving rapidly down the cost curve and will continue to do so as more projects get underway.

And bigger and better projects are already in the works. Spain has sensed that it’s onto a winner with solar power and the government has just granted a tender to Termosolar Alcazar (an equal partnership venture between the US-based SolarReserve and local developer Preneal) for the construction of another solar thermal plant. Located in Alcazar de San Juan, the 50MW project will provide 70, 000 houses in the region with clean energy. Not only will the project help Spain meet the objectives of the EU Climate & Energy package to reduce emissions, it will also generate 4,000 local jobs and 2,500 jobs in the US.

It is time that the Australian government started taking serious steps to transform the energy sector. If CST with storage has proven to be a success in other countries – and is now demonstrably capable of providing baseload power – how can Australia continue to pass up the opportunity to capitalize on some of the world’s best solar resources? Rather than pouring billions of dollars into research and development for “clean coal” technologies and coal seam gas – neither of which are truly clean and both of which are finite – the government should be preparing Australia for the transition to an electricity supply generated from renewable energy sources.

On Sunday, the details of a multi-billion dollar clean energy fund will be released as part of the carbon-pricing package; let’s hope that this will mean investment in the development of baseload solar and other renewables. There is no better way to reduce Australia’s contribution to global emissions whilst ensuring our long-term energy security.

– BZE Media Team