Australian Firm Presents Solar Thermal Storage Concept

On Friday, CNET published an article outlining the promises and challenges of solar thermal power plants like Nevada Solar One. Writer Michael Kanellos noted that solar concentrator technology has the potential to produce electricity at a rate competitive with natural gas, but still faces a number of hurdles: "The plant would also have to come with a large energy storage system, be built next to others and be located close to users. To date, no one has completed a facility that comports to all of these parameters..."

Yesterday, that article almost looked like a set-up for another one on Ausra, an Australian company that gave a presentation on Tuesday at Austin's Clean Energy Venture Summit. According to the article, Ausra claimed that it has overcome one of the hurdles mentioned above:

Ausra's twist is "thermal storage." In addition to generating steam from its array of special metal tubes, Ausra stores hot water that a power plant can draw on during times when the sun is not shining.

That thermal storage is key to competing on price even at peak demand times, said Robert Morgan, the chief development officer of Ausra, who spoke on Tuesday.

The company's system, which is now testing in Australia, can operate at 10 cents per kilowatt hour for plants between 100 and 200 megawatts. For plants between 100 and 500 megawatts, the cost goes down to 8 cents per kilowatt hour, said Morgan

That means they can compete with existing natural gas plants, which operate at 12 cents per kilowatt hour, he said.

"With thermal storage, we can compete with coal on price," he said. Coal-fueled plants are typically the cheapest sources of power.

Ausra also disclosed it's got some major backing: VC firms Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures have both invested in the company.

The storage issue would seem to be the biggest challenge to overcome to bring solar thermal power in line with fossil fuel sources. While Kallenos notes issues with siting plants (particularly permitting processes than can drag on for years), we're guessing that the promise of competitively-priced clean energy will help tremendously there. ::CNET and CNET via bluegreen at Hugg

Photo Credit: Kramer Junction Company and NREL/DOE

Tags: Australia | Electricity

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