New study hails CSP potential

Concentrating solar power (CSP) installations could be built in the Mediterranean basin and South Africa's Kalahari Desert to supply as much as 80% of each region's electricity demands, a new study has calculated.

Work carried out by Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), which ran the numbers on industrial-scale energy production using CSP networks in four of the world's solar hotspots, which also included the US southwest and India, suggests an energy system could meet rising energy demand "at no extra cost compared to gas-fired power plants".

"Solar energy systems can satisfy much more of our hunger for electricity, at not much more cost than what we currently have,” says Stefan Pfenninger, who led the study while at IIASA and is now doing research in the UK at Imperial College London's Grantham Institute.

In the study – thought to be the first to look at CSP's potential as a networked region-wide system – researchers simulated the construction and operation of complexes of plants, taking into account weather variations, project locations, electricity demand, and costs.

"Our results suggest that a geographically-dispersed CSP network, using current thermal storage technology, could be a comparably dispatchable or baseload-capable technology in some parts of the world," says Pfenninger.

"This could overcome one of the key perceived barriers to an energy system based primarily on renewables, which may be crucial for successful decarbonisation and thus for avoiding severe unmitigated climate change."

In the Mediterranean, a fleet of CSP plants could be wired in to provide "high availability" in meeting demand expected to reach around 311GW in 2030, according to the EU MedPro energy reference database.

The Kalahari could be built up with an installed capacity able to cover regional demand expected to be around 6.6GW, according to South African Department of Energy figures.

In all four regions, the worst case scenario for an "optimally designed and operated system" would still guarantee "up to half" of peak capacity.

Of the four regions examined, the Mediterranean and South Africa, according to the report, "offer the promise of very high availability without a substantial cost penalty [of a larger-than-optimal capacity installed to cover for the "variability" of solar power], whereas the US and India do not".

CSP is seen as the leading candidate technology for the mega-scheme as it can be scaled as a connected baseload-network of vast arrays with built-in thermal storage that are run in "a coordinated fashion", rather than "in a manner where each is as large as possible or is operated without consideration of regional weather conditions and the total fleet output".