Two identical 50 megawatt solar thermal plants are now up and running in Spain, each sending enough clean power to the grid to power over 40,000 homes. Torresol Energy, the joint venture between Abu Dhabi's Masdar and Spain's SEDER, announced that its second and third concentrated solar power plants are operating smoothly—the first was the renowned Gemasolar solar tower—and that plans for more are in the works.
Valle I & II, the new plants, each utilize parabolic trough technology—where rows of curved mirrors concentrate sunlight in order to heat a liquid, which is turned into steam to power a generator. The plants will be able to store enough energy to continue operating seven and a half hours after sundown.
Torresol announced the hallmark today at a press conference at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, and each of the project leaders on hand were optimistic about the technology's future. Enrique Sendragorta, head of Torresol, said that solar thermal projects were in the works in the U.S.—where they're still in the permitting phase—as well as in South Africa, Spain, Chile, and Australia.
The biggest challenge facing concentrated solar is cost, as is the case with so many ascendent renewable energy technologies. Jorge Sendragorta of SENER said that the focus going forward will be on bringing costs down, and noted that much progress has already been made on that front.
"We have slashed costs of concentrated solar power by more than one third in the last three or four years," he said. In another three or four years, he thinks costs could drop by another third. But the key is deployment; getting more solar thermal plants on the ground.
"There need to be material developments in new plants. That takes some time. The time cycle for innovation in CPS is quite long. Building a plant takes at least three years," Sendragorta said. "Now we need to complete a 2nd generation. We need 1,2,3 plants to be built with the new technologies for the next step in cost reduction."
An analysis SEDER conducted with Masdar shows that by 2020, concentrated solar will be "more or less competitive in that range with electrical prices in Spain."
Indeed, as of now, concentrated solar's costs only lag around 15% behind standard photovoltaic solar projects, and there's already the obvious benefit of being able to generate power after nightfall—which is why a mining company in Chile, which operates around the clock, is seeking to develop a project with Torresol.
Solar thermal has long been touted as one of the most promising renewable technologies; with every plant that comes online, the case grows stronger yet.