China getting serious about concentrated solar power

China looks set to step up its interest in concentrated solar power (CSP) by commissioning US company BrightSource Energy as a technology supplier to the first commercial-scale CSP project to be undertaken as part of the US–China Framework for the Ten-Year Cooperation on Energy and Environment. It will also compile a national CSP Handbook for the country.

Noted for forging ahead with renewable energy projects in the past five years, the country has been surprisingly slow to develop CSP, with only a single 1-MW plant currently in operation. Another 53-MW of CSP capacity is, however, either under construction or on the drawing boards.

As part of the annual discussions between the US Department of Energy and the Chinese National Energy Administration, the company signed memorandums of understanding with China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) and the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute (CREEI). BrightSource also signed an amendment to an existing MoU with Huanghe Hydropower Development, a subsidiary company of CPI.

Concentrated solar power systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large amount of sunlight, or solar thermal energy, onto a small area. The concentrated light is converted to heat which drives a turbine to produce power.  According to the International Energy Agency it is a “re?emerging market”. About 350-MW of commercial plants were built in California in the 1980s, but the technology was not embraced until 2006.

Only the United States and Spain have any significant CSP capacity, with about 1-GW and 500-MW installed, respectively. Other projects are also on the cards. The Middle East is also ramping up plans for CSP with the Shams-I the largest CSP Project in the world in Abu Dhabi, by MASDAR.

The future for CSP is regarded by the IEA as bright. The ETP BLUE Map scenario, which assessed strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by half in 2050, concluded that CSP, with appropriate support, could provide 11.3 percent of global electricity. It added that in the sunniest countries, it could be expected to become a competitive source of bulk power in peak and intermediate loads by 2020 and of base-load power by 2025 to 2030.

Its attraction is that CSP offers thermal storage capacity and flexible electrical production to the grid. It is also seen as a way of producing cheap hydrogen fuel as it produces significant amounts of high-temperature heat for industrial processes.

CSP does require the sunniest of climates, but China has 12 deserts including the Gobi. According to IEA estimates China will gain less than four percent of its electricity from CSP by 2050.

According to research by CleanBiz.Asia the only operating CSP plant in China is the 1-MW Dahan Tower plant in Yanqing, Beijing. This was funded under the National 863 Project during the 11th Five Year Plan but is owned by IEE-CAS. While China’s National Development and Reform Committee have approved up to five projects solid progress on construction after their official announcements are said to have been slow.

A 2.5-MW project in Himin Solar Valley, by the Himin Solar Group is due to come online soon, but the most ambitious project is the 50-MW Zhejiang Supcon Solar plant in Delingha, Qinghai. The plan is to be build 10 5-MW CSP towers. The first tower is already up while other elements of the project are said to be moving slowly.

Other companies which have shown interest in CSP projects include China Guangdong Nuclear Solar Energy Development Co, China Huadian Group, China Datang Group, Hanas New Energy Group and Supcon Solar. But details on full projects and their progress remain difficult to uncover and the BrightSource announcement reflects this as there was no indication of the size or cost of the projects.

The company did say in a statement that it would also work with CPI to track CSP technology developments and pursue relevant policy developments in China, along with exploring collaboration in international markets. BrightSource’s technology runs 29-MW thermal facility for Chevron Corp.’s enhanced oil recovery efforts in California and is currently constructing a 377-MW Ivanpah solar project in partnership with NRG Energy and Google in California.

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