Australia risks missing out on a highly promising renewable energy source if it turns its back on solar thermal technology because of the collapse of SolarReserve's high-profile $650 million project in South Australia, according to energy adviser Simon Currie, the former global head of energy at Norton Rose Fulbright.
SolarReserve's Aurora project near Port Augusta failed to meet a revised deadline for financial close, despite government backing through a 20-year supply contract with the South Australian government and $110 million of taxpayer funding promised by the Turnbull government.
South Australian Energy and Mining Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan revealed earlier this month US-based SolarReserve had been unable to secure additional finance for the project even after being given extra time, and had decided to sell it.
The Aurora plant was to be similar to a SolarReserve plant in the US. Solar Reserve
The failure of the ambitious project, which was supposed to come online in 2020 and supply power to the state at $78 a megawatt-hour, below average wholesale prices, has come as a setback to the emerging solar thermal sector in Australia. The process provides baseload solar through a combination of solar and thermal storage, and unlike solar PV, can also provide services that help stabilise the grid, like conventional thermal generators.
While solar photovoltaic plants convert sunlight directly into electricity, concentrated solar power (CSP) plants use mirrors to concentrate solar rays, which heat fluid to create steam to drive a turbine. Heat can be stored in molten salts, enabling electricity to be generated after the sun goes down.
Mr Currie said it would be a mistake to dismiss CSP technology for Australia, pointing to the very bright future envisaged for the process by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and large-scale investment pouring into it in the Middle East and China. He cited a forecast from IRENA that CSP will attract $US1900 billion of investment by 2050 and highlighted the ideal hot, dry climate conditions that can be found within Australia.
"I can't believe that we will look back in 30 years time with Australia's resource and say we didn't tap into this," he said.
Mr Currie drew a distinction between the 150 MW Aurora project, which envisaged a 220-metre tall solar power tower in the middle of a large field of mirrors to collect sunlight and heat molten salt, with three other CSP projects proposed in Australia that all use a much smaller tower system and lower-risk modular construction.
He said that while such large-scale projects had been successful overseas, the Aurora project was "a step too far" for a technology new to Australia to attract conservative financiers and equity investors.
Vast Solar has been operating a 1.1 MW pilot CSP plant in Jemalong, NSW. The three other ventures, Vast Solar, SolarStor and RayGen, are all different but all use a much smaller tower system of perhaps 15-20 metres with a very simple steel construction, Mr Currie said. Vast Solar, which has been advised by Mr Currie's Energy Estate firm, is in the process of seeking $75 million in funding to help it advance a $240 million project using its technology, which has been demonstrated at a 1.1 megawatt pilot plant west of Forbes in rural NSW.
A report for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which has backed Vast Solar, RayGen and SolarStor, and also supports the Australian Solar Thermal Research Institute, said last August that concentrated solar thermal technology would be the lowest cost solution to meet electricity demand when coal generators shut down in about 2030. In its base case, it estimated some 3.94 gigawatts of plants would be built in 2031-40.
Mr Currie said CSP plants could play a similar role in the power market north of Sydney to that of the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project in the Sydney-Melbourne region, preventing the "scandalous" frequency of spikes in spot prices in the past 12 months towards the $14,000 a megawatt-hour maximum. He suggested the plants could cap prices in the $100-$150/MWh range.
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