How the US Lost Out to Spain in Concentrating Solar Power

concentrating solar power

Renewable energy is a multibilion dollar global industry. One in which the US has fallen rapidly behind. Instead of using his presidency to build a world class renewable energy industry, like Germany, Spain, Italy or China (the world’s leading exporter of  PVC solar panels), Obama has pissed away his six years in office pimping dangerous and environmental destructive practices like fracking and deep sea oil drilling.

Concentrating solar power, aka Solar Thermal Energy (STE) is a technology that receives scant attention in the US, even in environmental circles. CSP systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight, or solar thermal energy, onto a small area. Electrical power is produced when the concentrated light is converted to heat, which drives a heat engine (usually a steam turbine) connected to an electrical power generator.

The Italian inventor Giovanni Francia designed and built the first concentrating solar plant near Genoa, which first went on-line in 1968. In 1981 the 10 megawatt (MW) Solar One power tower began operation in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The nearby Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS), consisting of nine solar plants with a total of 254 MW generation capacity, went on-line in 1984.

How Spain Became the World Leader in CSP

According to Solar Server, despite a worsening economic crisis, austerity cuts, street protests and general strikes,  Spain met a whopping 42% of its 2013 electricity needs through renewable power generation.

26% of Spain’s electricity comes from solar and wind generation and 16% from hydrogeneration. Globally, Spain has the third highest percentage of solar electricity generation (following Germany and Italy), and the highest percentage of CSP electricity generation.

The main advantage of CSP over rooftop photovoltaic cell (PVC) solar generation is the ability of CSP to generate a load large enough to power a grid. It also has the advantage of providing cheap and efficient thermal (i.e. heat) energy storage, which means it can produce electricity continuously night or day, especially during peak demand periods (summer evening hours or winter mornings).

In 2007 Spain installed Europe’s first commercial concentrating solar power plant, which generates a 11 MW load, near Seville. By 2010, they had surpassed the US as the world leader in CSP production. By October 2011, an additional 420 MW had gone into operation, with an additional 2500 MW anticipated by the end of 2013.

According to the Department of Energy, the US has a current CSP load capacity of 800 MW, with four new plants scheduled to come online in 2014.

Economic Benefits of CSP

In October 2011 the Spanish Association of the Solar Thermal Industry commissioned Deloite, one of the Big Four international financial powerhouses to analyze the economic viability of Spain’s CSP industry. According to the Deloitte report, Macroeconomic Impact of the Solar Thermal Electricity Industry in Spain, the total contribution of the CSP industry to Spain’s 2010 GDP was 1.6 billion Euros.

More importantly, the number of workers employed came to 23,844 in 2010. Many of the jobs created relate to the export of parabolic mirrors and other CSP technology and expertise to the rest of the world.

The five years Spain has spent refining CSP technology has made them the unquestioned leader in the Concentrating Solar Power Alliance. The CSPA is an international industry lobby group formed in March 2012 to to promote the benefits of CSP, specifically to US lawmakers, regulators, utilities and grid operators. With America’s insatiable energy needs, the US is clearly the market they need to penetrate.

Given the iron control the fossil fuel industry exerts over the Congress, White House and media, they have their work cut out for them.

photo credit: SandiaLabs via photopin cc