Climate change is the single greatest threat to Australia’s way of life. It’s mostly caused by pollution from three sources: transport, power (electricity) production, and food production.
However there is a ready solution to one of the causes, power production, responsible for roughly a third of climate change. This clean power solution is not being used due to a failure in market regulation and government; it’s called ’solar thermal’.
The technology is proven in Australia using Australian technology (at the Liddell power station in NSW, pictured), and there are two companies able to provide it (Solar Heat and Power and Wizard Power).
Most investment in these solar thermal power stations is overseas where they have operated for some 20 years. Spain, Portugal, China and the United States have or are building solar thermal power stations. Those countries have created markets that pay more money for clean power, so that’s where the stations are being built (1).
There is no technical reason stopping all our power being clean, from the sun. The reason solar thermal is not being used is due to market and red tape failures of governments.
Chris Harris’ plan is to remove the market failure and red tape. To do this, Chris is looking for investors from the public and the private sector to build the first solar thermal station to meet the needs of Sydney City (about 6 million MWh a year, or a 1 GW capacity power station) by 2010, and to demonstrate to governments, the public and the market that solar thermal power can provide base load power and should become the major source of power in Australia within the next ten years.
The source of the power for solar thermal power is the daily heat of the sun. Solar thermal technology cuts climate change because it does not use coal, a principal source of climate change pollution. Solar thermal can provide ‘base load” or daily power needs; with storage it also meets night time power needs.
The Greens Party has representatives at local, state and federal levels of government across Australia. By initiating these proposals and seeking support for them throughout the Greens Party Chris is able to affect polices at local, state and federal levels.
A short history of solar thermal power
Most of the world’s electricity comes from turbines driven by steam. The heat for that steam comes from coal, gas or nuclear power and in some places solar thermal. Solar thermal power stations can replace coal and nuclear simply by using the sun’s heat, and can continue to use the turbines and infrastructure which exist already.
As the sun shines most days in the hot areas chosen to build the power stations the ‘fuel’ needed to run the stations is delivered free of charge by the sun, and without the digging, extraction, refining, transport, health or safety risks of coal, gas or nuclear.
So solar thermal power can stop the climate change which coal, gas and nuclear power are causing.
Solar thermal power stations use mirrors to concentrate the sun onto liquid to heat it to high temperatures to make steam. The steam drives turbines which make electricity.
In June 2006 there was about 200 MW total plant capacity of solar thermal systems being built around the world. Over 354 MW of solar thermal power capacity has operated in California since the early 1970s at Kramer Junction. Nine commercial-scale solar-electric generating stations, the first of which began operating in 1984, produce electricity in the California Mojave Desert. They supply over 200,000 homes.
Worldwide there is currently 800 MW of solar thermal capacity.
Solar Heat and Power (SHP) is an Australian company formed by David Mills, Peter Le Lievre and Graham Morrison to commercialise one type of solar thermal power for large power stations, Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector technology. It has received investment from a local company and a grant of $3.1m from the Federal government in 2005. It has 30 factory staff in Singleton, NSW whose primary purpose is to build equipment for Macquarie Generation John Marcheff Solar Project. That project uses the mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat on liquid to make steam to support an existing coal fired plant, and provides 6.6MW (shortly to be 38 MW) for the 2000MW Liddell power station.
Internationally, SHP is growing quickly. A 6.5 MW plant was announced by the President of Portugal on July 7, and several joint ventures are under negotiation in the 20-50 MW range and a new US company will start up in 2007 (2). The US affiliate company of SHP will commence to build a 180 MW power station in 2007, then proceed to build a 1 GW station.
Solar thermal can supply base load
“Base load” is the daily and nightly power need of the main electricity grid. It’s that energy which supplies most of the energy we use. In NSW the peak load ranges from a minimum of 6,000 MW to a high of 13,000 MW - or about three to seven power stations of the same size at Liddell (3).
“Peak load” is the maximum amount of power used and it happens in a two-hour period typically around 4 to 6 pm most days throughout the year. There can be very high peaks when the weather is very hot or cold and most air conditioners and heaters are turned on.
The ability of solar thermal power to meet base load has been demonstrated for twenty years in the US, and the Spanish government accepts the technology has base load capacity:
“Modern storage technology makes solar power available during unfavorable weather and at night: the millions of litres of heat transfer fluid circulating in the solar field already represent a considerable storage capacity, which can bridge short-term cloudy phases. Molten salt storage tanks provide for additional reliable power supply around the clock. Applying storage technology ensures that the turbines can always run at full load and thus with optimal efficiency.
That makes the power plant more profitable.
Molten salt storage tank technology is proven and has been rated as reliable by common carriers. The Spanish national carrier has therefore given the power plant setup described here the same reliability status as fossil fuel power plants. It sees no problem in integrating such power plants in existing networks.
The construction of hybrid power plants is possible: since solar fields feed their heat energy into a conventional steam turbine, they can, for example, be integrated with ease in the relatively clean natural-gas-fired combined-cycle power plants of the latest generation. It is also possible to retrofit existing conventional steam power plants with parabolic trough solar fields as an additional solar steam generator. (4)
Solar thermal power is different to solar photovoltaic panels and to the 154 megawatt solar power station to be built in north-west Victoria which will use such panels in a one kilometer high ‘power tower’.
Solar photovoltaic panels are inefficient and make small amounts of electricity compared to solar thermal, coal and nuclear.
How will the new NSW solar power station work?
The new NSW station will be a large version of the small solar power station that has worked to support the Liddell coal fired power station since 2004 and built by the Australian company, Solar Heat and Power. The Liddell power station is a ‘hybrid’ - a mix of coal and solar thermal power. It is a large coal fired power station with a 2000 MW or 2 GW capacity, built and owned by the state government. It uses coal with some of its power coming from the steam made by the small solar power station (presently 6.5 MW, shortly to be 38 MW capacity).
The new station Chris Harris proposes is to be a stand alone version, built at Moree funded by private sector developers. Of course, if it wishes, the NSW government may wish to fund this or any other similar project. It will use only solar power to provide the heat and steam needed to run a large turbine which will provide mains grid electricity for use anywhere in NSW.
How does a solar thermal power station work at night?
During the day mirrors concentrate the heat of the sun on a raised pipe holding water and the concentrated heat of the sun quickly - in ten minutes or so - turns the water to steam. The steam is used to turn turbines and the turbines make mains power grid electricity.
When it is night or there is insufficient heat from the sun the turbines are powered using surplus stored solar power. Different storage methods are used and range from salt water, to oil, to pressurised water.
The storage system to be used for the first large solar thermal power station in Australia will be similar to that being used in California’s new large solar thermal power station, pressurised water.
Pluses and minuses of solar thermal compared to coal and nuclear
A recent paper sums up the advantages and disadvantages of solar thermal compared to nuclear and coal as follows.
- “Access to a much larger practical resource than wind or nuclear, variously estimated at around 30 times current human commercial energy use (total solar energy received is about 5000 times human energy use, but many locations cannot be used). For Australia, the current electricity generation would require about 1300 km2 of land, a square about 36 km on a side. This is about 1/36th the size of the largest Australian cattle station, Anne Creek, and represents about 1/6000th of the 7,617,930 km2 land mass in Australia. Around each of Moree and Cobar, there are about 40,000 km2 of suitable land, and there are many other potential sites around Australia. There is clearly no resource issue for sustainable use, now or in the future.
- STE can use low cost energy storage in thermal reservoirs. The first (oil storage) was successfully commercially demonstrated in the mid 1980’s (Frier and Cable, 1999) and the second (molten salt) is being commercialised in parabolic trough plants in Spain (Andasol, 2004). SHP is developing very low cost pressurised water storage, expected to be commercialised later in this decade. Lloyd Energy in NSW is close to building the first graphite storage system for a commercial solar plant, and Germany is developing concrete
storage. Storage actually drops cost by reducing the size of turbine required.
- Like wind, there are no waste issues of significance and the technology is very safe.
- Unlike both wind and nuclear, local inland communities are almost universally attracted to such solar plants for local job creation and low environmental impact.
- Like wind, long term immunity from fuel cost rises, since no fuel is used.
- High availability, assumed to be 94% in this paper.
- Capital cost is mostly upfront, higher than coal-fired plant, and close to nuclear plant of similar annual output. [see note below]
- The solar resource varies during the day according to weather conditions, and completely disappears at night, necessitating the use of storage. Storage systems other than molten salt and thermal oil still need to be proven on a large commercial scale.
- The availability of solar energy drops in winter, so that unless the system is designed for the summer load, it cannot supply the whole of the winter load; seasonal storage at high temperature is not possible except with chemical change systems like ammonia and hydrogen, using very large tanks.
- The technology also prefers a high solar radiation regime, so it is not suitable for countries like the UK, Germany, and Japan, but can make a huge contribution to countries such as China, India, the USA, Australia, and countries in southern Europe, Africa and South America, and in countries (like northern Europe) connected to sunny regions by a continental electricity grid.” (2).
NOTES TO LIST OF ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
There is abundant, unused and inexpensive land throughout NSW which can be readily used for solar thermal power.
Since this article was written prices for coal power stations have risen and they are about the same as solar thermal power stations; see Endnotes for more information, below.
Investment and market failure
Investment and market failure is a key problem for all new power stations including coal
Unlike the Liddell station, the new solar thermal power station will not be built by a government owned and financed company, nor will it pay dividends to the state government; the dividends will be paid to private investors, and the company will pay taxes to the federal government. (This will change if the NSW Government takes up the opportunity to invest in the project.)
The owner of the Liddell power station is a state owned business, Macquarie Generation, whose two shareholders are the NSW Treasurer and Minister assisting the Treasurer. Macquarie Generation pays dividends and tax equivalents - or profits - to the state government, from the sale of the electricity it sells by burning the coal.
This means there is a financial disincentive for the NSW government to support private sector investment in clean technology as the government will make no profits from it. Royalties paid by coal mining companies to the NSW Government in 2004 exceeded $220m; see the attached analysis by Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon. (5)
The NSW Government could adapt the Liddell station to solar power but that would mean not using coal and would cause the loss of coal miners’ jobs. Thus, the barriers to the take up of clean power are financial and social, not technical.
A study of the US market by the Schott corporation shows that there is a similar failure there. However, since the study was done, strong political leadership during 2006 in the US state of California has resulted in the market barriers being overcome sufficiently to allow new solar thermal plants to be built in that state.
“ … from an economic perspective, solar thermal power plant technology is a profitable investment in a sustainable and cost-effective power supply. However, at the same time, private investors must overcome very big hurdles for a market launch. Important risk factors include the high investment amounts, which have to be provided as equity capital or bank loans. Eighty percent of the costs for construction and operation of a power plant are incurred in the initial investments and their financing. For fossil fuels this is exactly the opposite. Twenty percent goes for investment; 80 percent for later operation of the power plant.
Only long-term power purchase agreements (PPA) in hard currency enable private investors to provide the funds at reasonable terms and conditions. The example of wind energy shows: if the feed-in-tariff guarantees premiums for twenty years, internal, reasonable project interest rates of six to seven percent are accepted. If such favorable conditions do not exist, the interest expectations of investors can rise to 15 percent and more. The estimate of project risk is actually decisive for the ability to get financing and thus for the market launch of solar thermal power plants. If we can succeed in lowering the risk for all participants to a reasonable level, substantial capital costs can be saved, and the market launch of solar thermal power plants can be accelerated.
Which power plants are currently planned?
To quote David Mills (2), “The groundbreaking for a 64-MW power plant near Boulder City, Nevada, is planned for early 2006. 19,300 receivers from SCHOTT will form the heart of the parabolic trough power plant. With its project in Nevada, SCHOTT will be partnering with Solargenix LLC. This power plant represents the first commercially operated solar thermal power plant to go into operation in 15 years. Experts agree that the power plant in Nevada will provide an important impulse for the widespread adoption of solar thermal technology.
Construction using the new technology is also scheduled to begin in 2006 for a 50 MW power plant in Spain on the plateau of Guadix near Granada. A second plant will follow the next year at the same location. The two of them together are designed to cover the power demands of a half million people.
Italy, Israel, and South Africa are also studying entry into the area of solar thermal power plants. In addition, supported by the GEF, there are also concrete plans to build parabolic trough fields to support gas-fired power plants in Mexico, Morocco, Egypt, and India. Algeria also plans to build a 150-MW hybrid power plant.” (4, p33)
Solutions for a fair energy market
There is widespread agreement about the financial character of a ‘level playing field’ for solar, nuclear and coal and these solutions listed below for the US are applicable to Australia:
‘A variety of studies conclude, that to achieve sustainable growth of the domestic renewable energy market in the US the following policy instruments are essential:
Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS, known in Australia as Mandatory Renewable Energy Targets): A stable, predictable power demand enforced by portfolio standards or to a lesser extent Green Power Purchasing agreements helps to obtain long-term PPAs.
Compatible and predictable incentives: Federal and state incentives should not exclude or interfere with each other, and should be granted for a long term, and not on a year-by-year basis.
Long-term Power Purchase Agreements (PPA): Incentive programs lower the cost for a project and help to attract it, but generally do not make it economically viable. Often, only long-term PPA’s at acceptable
prices provide the necessary investment security.
Suspension of territorial restrictions for the use of funds, i.e. the joint development of renewable energy sources by funds from non-neighboring states (For example, Oregon or Washington state funds the development of solar energy in Arizona.).
California: The state of California has a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) in place, which will require investor-owned utilities to produce 20% of their electricity retail sale from renewable sources by 2017. Out-of-state generators are eligible, if they deliver electricity directly into California.’ (4)
Jobs, coal and equity
A key political criticism of those who are calling for the end of coal fired power is that they have no solutions and care nothing for the loss of jobs by those working in the coal industry.
Chris Harris takes this criticism seriously and has three answers.
Firstly, the longer the coal industry operates there will be many more jobs lost and greater financial suffering as a result; this is the conclusion of the recent Stern Report [UK Government study]
There are about 124,000 jobs in the Australian mining industry, which includes those in the coal sector. But there are over 8 million other jobs in the other sectors of Australian industry, many of which may be lost while whole economies will be put at risk.
Secondly, as a matter of social justice, The Greens will promote re-training and re-employment schemes for retrenched coal workers. Don’t forget renewable energy projects will also create significant employment in regional areas.
Thirdly, and this may be the first proposal of its kind, Chris Harris proposes that Green Power be made competitive with coal fired power. This will make it as profitable to build renewable energy stations as to operate or build climate change causing coal-fired power stations.
To do this the price of electricity to the consumer who buys coal fired power would increase to match the cost of green power. Chris has called this new levy the ‘Brown Power Levy’.
There would be safety nets for pensioners and low income earners. Chris Harris and his Greens colleagues would create those solutions in consultation with the NSW Council for Social Services.
Just as the Green power levy presently goes to fund the new costs of green power generation, so would the Brown Power levy go to fund job retraining, industry restructure in the coal industry and to assist the development of renewable energy.
These two levies would create a fairer retail market. Those customers choosing to support either industry would pay the true costs involved and this levy can be initiated immediately in NSW to fund restructuring of the coal industry and growth of the green renewable sector.
Example of Brown Power Levy, two-bedroom unit (Summer Bill 2007)
1365 kWh @ 16.41 cents = $224 [Green power bill]
1365 kWh @ 16.41 cents = $224 [Proposed Brown Power]
1365 kWh @ 10.83 cents = $147 [current typical power cost]
Increase under proposed Brown Power = $77 or $6.41 a week or 91 cents a day
The third solution Chris proposes is to use the large buying power of local government across Australia to increase the demand for green power. Chris Harris is seeking agreement by all Australian councils to buy only green power, and to buy it in bulk using their existing regional and national organisations of councils.
Local government already cooperates to buy in bulk to bring down the cost of various items commonly used by councils and buying green power as a group of consumers makes sense. One of the benefits of the Greens Party is that it has representatives at local, state and federal levels of government, and this will facilitate the introduction of this green power purchasing initiative.
The coal economy is like the slavery economy
It was said 250 years ago that without slavery the economies of the countries of the United States and other countries would fail. Slavery was the foundation of those economies. Yet, when slavery was abolished, those economies survived because people and processes are flexible and can adapt.
This year, due to climate change and the failure of about 80% of the wheat crop Australia has had to buy overseas wheat to honour wheat contracts, fruit has had to be imported in greater quantities than before (Tasmania, which supplies over 80% of Australia’s tinned fruit, had almost no fruit this year due to climate change, and the cities of Brisbane and Adelaide may run out of water in mid 2007 if the rains do not come.) The price of food is rising faster than the price of oil and petrol.
Thus, coal digging and burning is already damaging our economy as well as our climate and it is time to adapt and move on.
How can the electricity market work to promote clean energy?
Chris Harris will introduce these policies and actions:
1. Play a leading role in arranging private and public sector support for a solar thermal power station to be built at Moree with the application and approval and construction process to commence in 2007.
Chris has already initiated action and supported steps by the new power station builder to arrange initial options on land at Moree.
2. Introduce legislation and seek support for it from the parties and from existing and new Greens MPs in the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament to:
- Make clean power more profitable than dirty power. To do this Chris will introduce a premium buy back price for households and business owners who install solar panels, wind turbines and other forms of renewable energy production and who sell their clean power back to the grid, including solar thermal (over 30 countries provide a higher buy-back price for clean energy; for example, in Germany owners of solar PV panels sell their power back to the grid for three times the price they buy the dirty power during the night). To initiate early action Chris will ensure the legislation sets a floor price matching the pricing system set in Germany. (Please see notes below about ‘feed in’ power.)
- Introduce a Brown Power pricing system to cover all coal-based power in NSW. As the Greens are a national party Chris will work with his colleagues
at local government, state and federal levels to obtain their support for similar pricing systems in the other Australian states.
3. Introduce legislation setting a target for 20% renewable energy by 2012
4. Introduce legislation requiring 100% clean electricity generation by 2020 and to require all state-owned power businesses to switch from coal to generating solar thermal power or other renewable sources by 2020.
5. To help the take up of energy and water and sustainable development
- Fast track and give priority to sustainable development — defined as 80 points for water and 80 points for energy under BASIX for housing, and the equivalent of that for units, subdivisions and offices, no mains water or sewage, > 20% renewable energy on site and the balance of the power to be Green Power;
- Remove blockages to sustainable development across NSW, including; lack of proactive support and policies to support use of rain water for all purposes, on site sewage for reuse in the house, office, residential units and on gardens and parks.
Notes about ‘feed in’ power
To explain point 2 above: here are some quick points about ‘feed in’ rebate prices for renewable energy;
- SA announced it in Sept 06
- Vic ALP promised it in the recent Victorian election
- Chris expects Premier Iemma to announce it in the NSW election
- Feed in laws require electricity utilities eg Energy Australia to buy electricity generated from renewable sources and fed back into the grid and to pay a premium ie higher price to the supplier of the electricity
- It was introduced in the US first by President Carter in 1978 during the oil crisis fallout
- In the 1990s European countries introduced it and it’s now in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Latvia, Brazil, Indonesia, Nicaragua, China, etc — over 30 countries
- Germany is the most famous as it’s premium is the highest and since 2000 has produced a doubling in renewable energy fed into the German grid with a seven x increase in installed PV; during this time Australia had less than 1% of Germany’s capacity installed
- The German law guarantees the supplier with 20 years premium rates and pays more on a sliding scale
- The sooner the installation is made from a commencement date the higher the feed in price — to encourage early take up
- Germany wants to improve its long-term energy security, increase sustainable energy as a proportion of the total used and now 10.2% of electricity in Germany comes from renewable.
What is NSW’s political future with climate change?
Even as the NSW government advertises its glossy State Plan on commercial television and portrays itself in a new ‘green’ light, the paper itself is an apology for the coal industry and motorised road transport.
The whole strategy hangs upon ‘clean coal’. Such a thing is unproven, will take years of research to develop, and would be extremely expensive to apply even if it did work.
In other words, ‘clean coal’ is code for ‘do nothing’.
Solar Thermal, on the other hand, is already proven, is already working and can produce quick benefits as the modular nature of its construction means that truly clean energy production can begin relatively early in the process.
The policies of Chris Harris are new solutions for new realities.
Recent information on coal power station costs and extracts from the Schott White Paper — more information on financial issues; Chris sees these as perhaps the major problems needing solutions if clean energy is to become the norm.
‘Can solar thermal power plants be operated profitably?
Power production costs (levelised energy cost = LEC) for the currently operating Californian power plants, depending on their location, are 10-12 cents/kWh; for the planned Spanish, purely solar AndaSol parabolic trough power plants — solar power plants with molten salt storage systems and 20 percent less irradiation — they are correspondingly higher. Experts agree that these costs can be reduced to 4-6 cents/kWh in the next 10 years if capacity is expanded to 5000 MW. Thus they will become competitive with medium load conventional power plants.
The cost structure of electricity produced by solar thermal power plant technology is marked by high costs for initial investment. Over the entire life cycle that means: 80 percent of the costs are expenditures for construction and the associated debt service; only 20 percent are operational costs. This is why the confidence of financial institutions in the new technology is of such great importance. Only when they make funds available without high risk surcharges, can solar thermal power plant technology be financed and in the future become competitive with fossil fuel medium load power plants.
Once the plant has been paid for after 25 or 30 years, only operating costs remain, which are currently about 3 cents/kWh. The electricity will then be cheaper than any competition, comparable to that today from hydro power plants that have long since been written off. The Californian power plant operators will have reached this point by 2018.
Even in the current market launch phase, the energy feed-in tariff for the power grid is far below that required for photovoltaics, and can provide an adequate impulse for constructing large scale power plants. Thus the Spanish decision to set the sale of energy to the grid for solar thermal power plants at 18 cents plus market price per kilowatt hour is an adequate market launch incentive. At that rate, solar thermal power plants can be operated profitably at good sites in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.
This incentive is limited to a capacity of max. 50 MW per power plant. In the view of the International Energy Agency and the World Bank, solar thermal power plant technology is the most economical way to generate electricity from solar energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris foresees a potential cost reduction to less than 6 cents/kWh by 2020. Back in 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) developed a plan for solar thermal power generation, which envisioned an installed capacity of 20,000 MW by 2020 with electricity costs of less than 6 cents/kWh. On the basis of economies of scale and the learning curve, the World Bank also expects that electricity production costs for solar thermal power plants will drop to less than 6 cents/kWh by the year 2020.’ (4, p26)
Latest coal costs
Recent industry and project announcements in the USA of some new coal plant costs show that coal and steel have greatly increased in cost and our present solar costs reflect this but the coal plant charges with modern pollution equipment have been difficult to get. Costs seem to be about USD $2.3 per peak watt, capital charge only, for the cleaner plants. For example, see (6).
In the USA solar will cost between US$2.5 and $3.5 per peak watt. But note that the fuel cost for coal plants probably exceeds capital cost (see fuel cost below). No green subsidy is required.
On the cheap end of the scale TXU in Texas are planning 11 plants costing a total of $10 billion using old pulverised coal technology at USD1.2 per peak watt, using no advanced emissions control. These are widely criticised in the USA. See (7) below and many others.
The TXU plants would develop 78 million tons of CO2 per year and use 78/2.86 = 27 million tonnes of coal. One tonne of coal costs about US$36 per tonne, so this is about 1 billion per year, so the coal cost over the 40 year lifetime well exceeds the capital charge even when discounted. In this case the cost of electricity per kWh is probably fairly close to that of solar. However if we factor in carbon pollution cost by including the effect of any carbon trading, this would probably provide a 2-3 cents differential in favour of solar.
1. Lovegrove, Zawadski, Solar Progress, Sept 06
2. Mills, Solar Progress, Sept 06, p 10
3. Mills, Comparison of Solar, Nuclear and Wind for Large Scale Implementation - Plenary Address, ANZUSS 2006
4. Schott White Paper 2006 on Solar Thermal Power Plant Technology,
New York 2006, download: http://www.us.schott.com/solar
5. Lee Rhiannon, ‘Coal Fact Sheet‘
The Concentrating Solar Power. Global Market Initiative (GMI),
Washington 2004, download: http://www.solarpaces.org/GMI.HTM
Greenpeace, European Solar Thermal Power Industry Association (ESTIA):
Solar Thermal Power in 2020, Birmingham/Amsterdam 2003,
Department of Energy, Solar Energy Technologies Program. Multi-
Year Techical Plan 2003-2007 and beyond, Washington, D.C., 2004
German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU):
World in Transition - Towards Sustainable Energy Systems, Berlin 2003,
Mills, Solar Thermal point summary