According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change concentrated solar power (CSP) could supply a substantial amount of current energy demand. The idea seems to be justify supplying a large fraction of the power supply in a decarbonized energy system.

The naivety is simply stunning. There seems to be no sense left in the anti-carbon dioxide business. Orders of magnitude and understanding large numbers, material learned by a junior high school student, has numbed down an incredible swath of people, even “well educated” ones bright enough to win grants for dubious ideas.

For an example, the study shows in the Mediterranean region that a connected CSP system could provide 70-80% of current electricity demand, at no extra cost compared to gas-fired power plants. Its compared to a standard energy production plant, such as a nuclear plant, that would run better than 90% of the time, day and night, 7/365. Solar is going to be down, at least 50% of the time over a year.

While the premise the study makes is not impossible, the improbable solutions are not at hand or even relatively close. The cost assertions are simply unbelievable to those who are watching the field.

Nevertheless, lets give these folks their shot.

Stefan Pfenninger, who led the study while working at International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and is now a Research Postgraduate at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London said, “Solar energy systems can satisfy much more of our hunger for electricity, at not much more cost than what we currently have.”

IIASA researcher Fabian Wagner, who also worked on the study starts the explanation, “In order to address climate change we need to greatly expand our use of renewable energy systems. The key question, though, is how much energy renewable systems can actually deliver.”

That statement clears up the motives for the work and exposes the biases. The study is said to be the first to examine the potential of CSP as a large-scale energy production system, in four regions around the world.

The study press release starts with the main problem – deploying solar energy on a large scale is that the sun doesn’t shine all the time. That means that energy must be stored in some way. For photovoltaic (PV) cells, which convert sunlight directly to electricity, this is especially difficult to overcome, because electricity is difficult and expensive to store.

Unlike photovoltaic (PV) cells, CSP uses the sun’s energy to heat up a liquid that drives turbines. This means that the collected energy can be stored as heat, and converted to electricity only when needed. But even with CSP, if the sun doesn’t shine for long periods of time, the system may not be able to support large-scale energy needs.

One way to solve this problem is to build a large, connected network of CSPs. Until now, however, nobody had explored the details and feasibility of such a plan. In the new study, the researchers simulated the construction and operation of CSP systems in four regions around the world, taking into account weather variations, plant locations, electricity demand, and costs.

Study co-author Anthony Patt, Professor of Human-Environment Systems, ETH Zurich Department of Environmental Systems Science, and an IIASA guest research scholar said, “Our study is the first to look closely at whether it’s possible to build a power system based primarily on solar energy, and still provide reliable electricity to consumers around the clock, every day of the year. We find this to be possible in two world regions, the Mediterranean basin and the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa.”

The basic idea isn’t new. Previous work has shown the possibility of solar could be worked out with things like deployment of specific technologies in precise ratios, careful demand-side management, or grid-scale storage technologies rolled in. But these parameters require yet to be developed technologies, extensive control systems, consumers willing to endure unreliability albeit “managed”, and immense heat storage systems.

Putting the press release materials behind us, what does the study abstract conclusion actually say?

“We simulate the operation of CSP plant networks incorporating thermal storage in four world regions where CSP is already being deployed, and optimize their siting, operation and sizing to satisfy a set of realistic demand scenarios. In all four regions, we show that with an optimally designed and operated system, it is possible to guarantee up to half of peak capacity before CSP plant costs substantially increase.”

The study authors did a fair job on the study paper. Its the press release, which is what most folks will see, that blows the whole thing into disbelief. Worse yet, two of the four locations where work is underway are thought to be never able to be effective.

Still there are major holes here like the “costs” that aren’t laid out at all in either the study abstract or press release.

Reality hasn’t stopped the optimism. Projects are underway at vast expense with subsidies, inducements and all manner of enticements to over come the uneconomic facts.

Those efforts are worthwhile to work out the costs, engineering and operations of such facilities. Someday the technology and electricity pricing structures might meet up.

Remember, the study is a simulation, most likely done on a computer, starting with assumptions, adding in variables and other sundries and presto! There’s your result. Its just what the climate change folks do!

Your humble writer never much cared for the pied piper’s song and is way past sick of paying for all the misdirected resources becoming wasted.


1 Comment so far

  1. zvibenyosef on June 26, 2014 1:59 PM

    You make some good points, however the article is spoiled by politically biased statements like “climate change folks”. You point out the costs of alternative energy, but fail to recognize the increasing costs of doing business as usual. The increasingly severe weather events are placing a huge burden on all of us.
    There has been a lot of research into better battery storage. Solar power plus wind power locally generated and locally stored is a more realistic solution than the idea of just using strategically placed concentrated solar sites.

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