New advances in concentrated solar power

Clean energy startup Heliogen is developing a promising concentrated solar technology that could produce renewable process heat at extreme temperatures, while China continues its intense program of constructing new CSP plants.

A recent article on the CNN Business website claims that a secretive startup backed by Bill Gates has achieved a solar breakthrough aimed at saving the planet.

The startup is called Heliogen, a clean energy company that says it has discovered a way to use artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to reflect so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000˚C. In essence, they have made an extremely hot solar oven.

In some respects, there’s nothing new with the idea. Concentrated solar power (CSP) is already being used to produce electricity and create heat for industry. In Oman it’s used to drill for oil. The significant difference with the Heliogen project is the extremely high temperature possible.

Almost twice as hot

Current commercially viable solar thermal technologies are designed to generate temperatures up to 565˚C – useful for power generation, but insufficient for many industrial processes, which therefore rely on fossil fuels. Raising the temperature of the oven to 1000˚C is a whole new ballgame, opening up the possibility to use renewable heat to make cement, steel and glass.

In other words, as the article explains, “carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.” This is definitely good news. Heavy industry such as steel, cement and glass account for one-fifth of global CO2 emissions.

Considerable challenges

However, challenges lie ahead. Heliogen will require significant capital to scale up, although it’s made a good start. It’s already being backed by two billionaires: Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong.

The company also has to convince industrial companies that it’s worth the investment to switch over to its solar technology.

And of course there is the age-old problem with solar: the sun is always shining, but its rays don’t always reach the planet. As steel and cement makers have a constant need for heat, further investments in energy storage systems are likely. On this latter topic, it’s interesting to note that Bill Gates has already invested $26 million in Malta: a startup to build a standalone thermal energy storage pilot plant.

Even higher than 1000˚C?

In addition to industrial process heat, Heliogen’s technology roadmap suggests that temperatures up to a staggering 1,500˚C are possible. This would drive CO2-splitting and water-splitting processes to make 100% fossil-free fuels such as hydrogen or syngas.

Heliogen is able to achieve these breakthrough temperatures as a result of its technology that uniquely uses advanced computer vision software to hyper-accurately align its massive array of mirrors to reflect sunlight to a single target.

CSP: The future of energy?

With 49 operational concentrated solar power plants totaling 2.3 GW, Spain is the world leader in terms of production capacity with this renewable energy source. Generation costs in Spain have been reduced by 47% between 2010 and 2018.

Coming up fast is China. In 2018, rapid growth of CSP occurred here, with a total capacity of 215 MW new CSP projects finished, which is almost 7 times the 30 MW capacity made before that year. These new CSP projects form part of a national strategic plan to build local experience in the implementation of CSP by targeting more than 5 GW of capacity by 2022; over double that of Spain.

CSP global capacity

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