September 14, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Hawaiian firm shrinks solar thermal power
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Industry experts foresee wider adoption of solar thermal power plants in desert areas because, with government incentives, they approach the cost of power generation from fossil fuels.
The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratories estimates that solar thermal technology can supply hundreds of gigawatts of electricity, or more than 10 percent of demand.
Ausra CEO Peter Le Lievre earlier this week said that about 8,500 square miles could supply all of its electricity needs of the United States.
By contrast, Sopogy's approach is to generate electricity on-site and in a wide range of environments, not just deserts. Apart from providing ample heat, coming from Hawaii gives the company an excellent test ground, Kimura said.
"Hawaii has a harsh environment. There are earthquakes, storms; there is salt water in the air (which can damage mirrors). Since it's designed to work in Hawaii, it'll work virtually anywhere in the world," he said.
The company is using nanomaterials to coat the reflective troughs to make them more durable, he added.
Commercial customers can use the steam for purposes other than generating electricity, such as heating or cooling through absorption air conditioners.
The cost factor
An important piece of data still needed on Sopogy's demonstration systems is cost per kilowatt in different areas and at different times of the year.
Right now, its system can produce electricity at somewhere between 12 and 16 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's higher than fossil fuel sources of power, but Kimura expects the price to go down if products can be manufactured on a larger scale.
Also, renewable energy sources benefit from incentives. And distributed generation has the advantage of competing with retail electricity prices, which are higher than wholesale prices from power plants.
Emerging Energy Research's Klein said that 16 cents per kilowatt-hour for a small-size CSP system would be compelling, although he's doubtful it can be done now.
At that price, Sopogy's MicroCSP system would be competitive with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels that convert sunlight into electricity, or concentrating solar photovoltaic technology, where lenses focus light on solar cells to boost output.
"It's an interesting model because it does present a competitor for solar PV. But it depends whether they can demonstrate that they can compete on cost and ease of installation," he said.
Another important consideration is the ongoing maintenance costs, noted Reese Tisdale, a senior analyst at Emerging Energy Research. Because there are few moving parts, solar PV installations tend to have a simpler maintenance.
Tisdale said Sopogy appears to have a unique approach in the solar thermal world. But other energy companies have shrunk down large-scale power generation technologies to a smaller scale. For example, Infinia is making a relatively small solar Stirling engine.
"It's another alternative. I definitely think it's worth exploring," Tisdale said.
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