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The SEGS CSP plant in California (photo: US Land Management Bureau).

The SEGS CSP plant in California (photo: US Bureau of Land Management).

A well-kept secret: the alternative solar energy technology

With the UN Climate Talks taking place in Paris and our attention on the future and energy production, sustainable alternatives are much needed. Rachel Lever writes about one development that offers an innovative energy-wise solution.

The government is cutting off financial incentives for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, in favour of a major fracking quest to extract carbon-heavy gas from under our feet. To make it worse, they have just pulled the plug on government support for carbon capture and storage technology.

One wonders how they dare show their faces at the Paris climate summit.

Climate campaigners say, “Keep It In The Ground”, but can Britain’s current clean renewables ever be more than marginal? Can they drive our trains and heavy transport, our industrial processes and machinery, or the bulk of our domestic and commercial heat and light?

Two other clean technologies that I know of CAN do that. One is nuclear, which costs a bomb, takes decades to get built and risks horrendous accidents. Even the projected Hinckley Point C nuclear plant will only provide 7% of our energy.

The other is CSP: concentrating solar power. And what is that exactly?

Ask people in this country what solar power is and most likely they’ll say, “It’s those roof panels that can heat our bathwater and one day in the future, charge the batteries for a short-run drive in an electric car.”

CSP, on the other hand, uses solar heat, concentrated by mirrors onto super-heated crystals, to create steam to drive turbines that pump out electricity on an industrial scale. It’s unlimited. It’s cheap. It’s safe. It takes months, not decades, to be installed. And the power it produces can be cabled from sun-drenched north Africa or southern Europe and into our National Grid.

Unlike oil and gas, its use and development are not centrally controlled by a few mega-companies and won’t start any wars. The technology is tried and tested, and the sites need no digging or drilling to find them.

CSP is not a dream or new-fangled untried idea. It isn’t waiting on research. It’s an established industry, powering up regions all over the world: there are plants in Spain and Sicily; India and China are scrambling to get them installed; the USA, South Africa and Chile are also among the world’s CSP leaders. Over 300 plants around the world are either up and running or in the planning or construction stages. And that’s despite a dearth of government help, subsidies or tax breaks.

Global capacity has climbed in the past 10 years to 5GW, and is expected to reach 22GW in the next 10 years; but another figure quoted by Arthur Neslen in The Guardian on 30 November was that India alone is aiming for 175GW in just seven years’ time.

Industrial-scale solar energy is often equated with tropical zones, but nearly every major world economy is within cabling reach of a hot desert region. Britain can invest in the plants – and even make the parts and components – and has a ready-made national grid to connect it up to.

Compared with the building of our canal and rail systems in the nineteenth century, the challenges are minimal.

Closest to us by under-sea cable is Morocco, another leader in the CSP race, which is about to open the biggest CSP plant in the world – and is looking ahead to exporting to Europe. France and Germany are set to be its first customers.

Will Britain be buying this cheap, clean power, or better still, investing in new plants to speed up Morocco’s installations so they have a surplus to export much sooner?

CSP ticks all the boxes as a world-class answer to the need for clean energy, but without a fast-track process, the wheels of finance, law, bureaucracy and planning are grindingly slow. Generating the investment to drive rapid growth requires a bit of a headwind of publicity, which CSP has so far not achieved.

Until this week it seemed that another decade might pass before CSP reached a ‘knowledge tipping point’ in this country, but two hugely promising announcements came in Paris at the start of COP21 which might change that.

Indian leader Narendra Modi, together with France’s Francois Hollande, announced a 120-country solar alliance. And later the same day a big bucks ‘Breakthrough Energy Coalition’ led by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson plus two dozen other investors launched a new funding drive.

If Branson were to invest in some plants in Morocco, do a deal with our National Grid to accept power from there and use it to drive his trains, then maybe the penny will drop.

Meanwhile, we can only chip away at our media, political parties and government to take an interest: the CSP industry runs regular gatherings for networking between utilities, financiers, legislators and developers. The Labour Party and Green Party could send their energy teams to learn more. And so, of course, could the government, if it could kick its dirty obsession with gas and its outdated commitment to nuclear.

More info about CSP at CSP Today.

Posted 09:47 Thursday, Dec 3, 2015 In: Energy Wise


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