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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5 comments

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Why not Geo Thermal?
Hello! Hawaii? Volcanoes? Anyone?

You're sitting on a really hot geothermal site, so why not take advantage of it?
Posted by dargon19888 (412 comments )
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Geothermal only possible on "Big Island"
The problem with trying to tap into geothermal power is that the only place where it works is on the island of Hawai'i, the "Big Island." That's not very practical when it comes to localing geothermal-powered generators on the "Big Island" and transmitting them all the way back to Maui and Oahu, where the power is needed the most.
Posted by SactoGuy018 (1360 comments )
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Thoughts on Geothermal vs. Solar Thermal
In addition to the previous comment about geothermal as it relates to Hawaii, another issue is that geothermal is baseload. In microgrids such as Hawaii, baseload is important for frequency and spinning reserve. Geothermal baseload could displace critical spinning reserve which preserve grid integrity at the most efficient parts of the generation curve making utility economics work.

On the other side of the coin, solar thermal matches peak load and addresses the most expensive kilowatt hour. This is probably one of the main reasons why this small solar thermal idea was born in Hawaii.
Posted by venturerock (2 comments )
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Its about time
Smaller scale Concentrated Solar Power makes a lot of sense. Examine history, CSP technologies have been in operation since the mid-80's exhibiting dispatchability, demand reduction and reliability. CSP also reduces utility issues with baseloading as it only operates during the day which directly addresses the demand curve. Storage can be added to overcomes the intermittancy challenge. It has left to be seen what kind of economies of scale this company will achieve in its ability to bring CSP to the home or smaller installations, but it is logical that CSP is economical for industrial and commercial uses today.
Posted by venturerock (2 comments )
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Whoops, they must be sniffing vulcano gas!
The website is a single page with a email address block on it. It doesn't work in FireFox 2.0 or IE7.

Also the info@ address doesn't work I found in their boilerplate Terms of Use and just bounces back. Maybe the dudes forgot to pay their web site bills? Maybe they weren't for real.

Using "nano-technology" to surface their reflectors? Give me a break!

Dilbert had a cartoon recently that utilized "nano-technology" to fight terrorism. It wasn't by accident that the pointy-haired boss was the one suggesting the technology and usage connection!
Posted by xwindowsjunkie (3 comments )
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