Solar thermal or coal for regional Australia?

Gemasolar aerial view
Gemasolar solar-thermal plant, Spain

The newly-built Gemasolar plant in Spain recently made the news by generating power round the clock,  the first time a solar thermal plant has achieved this. Now plans are being promoted for some of the sunnier regions of the country. In both cases, the proponents are posing the new technology as an alternative to coal mining and burning in the area.

First, in Port Augusta (South Australia) the ABC reports (getting Mark Ogge’s name wrong, it seems):

Scientists and engineers have drawn up plans to convert Port Augusta’s two coal-fired powered stations to solar thermal plants.

Non-government organisation Beyond Zero Emissions will meet South Australia’s Energy Minister Michael O’Brien this week to discuss the two stations’ potential for conversion to solar.

Mark Ooges from the organisation says most equipment and staff would be kept under the plan.

“In a sense a solar thermal power plant is exactly the same as a thermal coal plant, the only difference is to produce the heat you use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy rather than burning coal,” he said.

Mr Ooges says converting the power stations from coal to gas would be too costly.

“As Australia starts exporting a whole lot of LNG (liquefied natural gas), gas prices are going to be linked to global prices so if we link our electricity generation to gas prices then we’ll start getting the same volatility and uncertainty at the power switch that we’re already getting at the petrol pump,” he said.

Alinta’s Playford B station at Port Augusta is expected to close under any carbon tax scheme.

Meanwhile in Mudgee, central NSW, local environmentalists are putting forward solar thermal power as an alternative to the proposed new Cobbora coal mine. The Mudgee Guardian reports:

Mudgee District Environment Group (MDEG) will discuss a proposal for a solar thermal power station for the Mid-Western Regional Shire at a public meeting next week.

MDEG spokesperson Bev Smiles said a feasibility study of the solar thermal power station project had found it would cost tax payers much less than the proposed Cobbora coal mine while causing no threat to water sources, farming communities, biodiversity or the earth’s atmosphere.

The 50MW solar thermal power station would provide base load electricity supplies covering up to 30,000 homes between Mudgee and Coonabarabran.

MDEG member Ian McAdam, who has researched the feasibility of a solar thermal power generator for the Mudgee area, will present the details at the public meeting on Thursday, September 22, at The Stables, in Market Street, Mudgee at 6pm.

Ms Smiles said MDEG did not support the investment of $1.6 billion of NSW taxpayer’s money in the Cobbora coal mine project north west of Gulgong.

“This money would build five solar thermal power stations in the Central West with no further investment requirements beyond maintenance,” she said.

MDEG has invited Mid-Western Regional Council staff and councillors to attend the meeting to learn more about renewable energy options for the shire.

Gavin Smith, from national group Beyond Zero Emissions, will also present information on the options for Australia to reduce carbon emissions at the meeting.

Mr Smith has just returned from a trip to Spain and Portugal where the take up of solar thermal electricity generation is well advanced.

6 thoughts on “Solar thermal or coal for regional Australia?

  1. Interesting technoloy. I understand it produces around 110GWh p.a. of power (in theory, anyway) and cost about $300 million-plus.

    Dirty old Hazelwood produces about ten times the amount of power, so to replace Hazelwood alone with this technology would cost about $30 billion.

    To replace all of Australia’s power would cost something like $650-$700 billion.

    Doesn’t sound like very good bang for buck yet.

  2. “…yet” being your key point there! US government figures suggest that 8GW of global capacity in solar thermal would bring the price down to be competitive with gas and probably with coal under our carbon price.

    So given that Victoria’s total capacity now is about 8GW, your figure of $650-700 billion would be out by a bit!

    Australia has great solar resources, and is one of the world’s richest countries. It’s probably in our best interests to replace fossil fuels (they are only going to get more expensive, as world demand increases and as they become scarce); we could do with a new hi-tech industry to stimulate the economy; and given our disproportionate share of the world’s carbon emissions, it is only fair that we help pay for the solution.

  3. Gemasolar is the most expensive baseload solar thermal plant to be built – they will only get much, much cheaper from here. In the USA the Tonopah solar thermal plant in Nevada is five times the output for only double the price – There’s rapid cost reductions to be had in this technology, even from one plant to the next.

  4. Im all for this technology, but it will need to drop in cost to be competitive. It is certainly clearly more useful than numerous other renewables.

  5. Well somebody has to start somewhere, if we all sat around waiting for technological developments to occur, nothing would happen and no costs would drop.

    People buy cars, televisions and who knows what else with no thought to depreciation or the fact that these things are essentially money down the drain, it’s curious that we worry about the cost of infrastructure that can benefit everybody and bitch and moan about the costs while forgetting about the convenience they provide.

    There is a curious cognitive dissonance when it comes to cost benefit analysis of renewables versus subsidised fossil fuel power.

  6. I notice that when quoting costs for coal against solar they conveniently forget on going costs which in the case of solar are considerably less.
    Also the costs of destroying the planet is way way above any price the human race could ever afford.

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