Australia handicapped by 19th-century technology

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 Feb.

Renewable energy is the fastest growing power source in the world, and already generates baseload electricity on the scale of utilities. Large solar thermal plants with heat storage can dispatch power around the clock every day of the week regardless of whether the sun is shining, and make handsome profits during demand peaks.

Wind power is being installed on scales that dwarf Australian grid requirements. These and other clean energy technologies are replacing coal on modern grids. While Australia continues to throw money at 19th-century technologies, Spain, China, the US and others are charging ahead with zero-emissions power generation, and creating export markets.

Spain consumes about as much electricity as Australia, though its population is about twice as large. Like Australia, Spain is blessed with strong, consistent sunshine, and it uses this attribute to ensure energy security. Already it has built 24-hour baseload solar plants, using molten salt to store heat which is then used to create steam and turn turbines. It started with Andasol 1, a 50MW plant, and has now completed two similar projects. More than 1,800MW of projects are under construction and the government has just approved another 2,440MW for their feed-in tariff scheme for construction over the next three years.

The Gemasolar project is the shining light of the Spanish boom in baseload solar power. This solar thermal plant has created 1500 jobs and will operate at 60 to 100 per cent of maximum turbine output for up to 90 per cent of hours each year. Very low maintenance shutdown requirements allow this efficiency, far greater than coal-fired power generators in NSW. When the turbine is idle, heat is bled off the ”cold” 290-degree salt storage tank to keep the turbine seals warm, allowing fast starting – as seen in the best hydro and gas plants. This capacity for baseload and fast-start ”dispatchable” power generation places the Gemasolar plant among the highest-value electricity plants, a fact not lost on investors.

This solar generation capacity is in addition to Spanish wind power. Wind turbines supply 11 per cent of Spain’s electricity demand, and this will more than double to 25 per cent by 2020. Another 6000MW of wind power is approved for installation in the next three years. That is just shy of three plants the size of the Bayswater power station near Muswellbrook, with all the jobs but no emissions.

Spain is phasing out coal and nuclear, and the companies that built the nuclear plants have re-tooled to build solar thermal plants with heat storage. These companies did not want to own the nuclear plants they built, but they have set up investment vehicles to own solar thermal plants.

Compared to the 10 years it takes to get a nuclear plant up and running, solar thermal plants with 24-hour baseload capacity have construction times as short as nine months, so such projects are not exposed to the same political, industrial and financial risks as nuclear plants. Envisaging a lucrative market for their solar infrastructure and expertise, the Spanish anticipate a healthy return on any subsidies for these technologies.

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