Whorled View

November 12, 2007

Solar Thermal to overtake Solar PV within 10 years

The cost of Solar Thermal electricity is half the cost of Solar PV.  This has been true for dozens of years, but solar thermal has never been as lucrative as solar PV because it can only be done in huge installations, so it’s been ignored relatively speaking.  Solar PV has always received the bulk of government subsidies by far – largely because of lobbying power of big businesses and because it’s easier to sell Solar PV to consumers (rooftop panels) than Solar Thermal to power companies (giant solar farms).  That’s finally changing.  Power companies and the Congressmen who get funding for green energy are finally getting wise.  As such some major Solar Thermal plants are in the works, and Acciona expects that by 1017 more electricity will be generated by Solar Thermal plants than all the Solar PV panels in the United States combined (including the one on your solar calculator).

That’s cool. Read more about it here.



  1. Your assertion about CSP getiing cheaper is enthusiastic but short on figures.

    How much do “huge installations” cost the environment as compared to the panel on the roof, in terms of water for cooling, molten salt for storage of heat, and transportation on power lines?

    I believe that PV’s power lies in the decentralization of supply and the absence of heavy infrastructural costs.

    Here is a pro-nuclear article debunking the broad promises being made of CSP:



    Blessed Sun

    Comment by blessedsun — October 16, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  2. Don’t trash Solar thermal, blessedsun, because you think it’s in competition with PV or nukes. While it’s true they are in competition for gov’t funding, gov’t funding by itself with have little power to make ANY renewable energy technology a significant energy player to effect energy demand ever. The only thing that will make it happen is to get any of these technologies cheap enough without subsidies to compete with coal. Period.

    So to both answer your question and mine you need to look at it in terms of unsubsidized cost per Watt, and with regards to $ for distributed PV everywhere you’re looking at $0.30/kWh, solar thermal is estimated to be close to coal, $0.10/kWh, and possibly less (it’s already working at $0.14/kWh in the Mojave), estimated as cheap as $0.06 by Ausra (of course they’re going to low-ball it). For building a high-voltage backbone), you’re looking at doubling that cost (worst case), which gives you $0.20, still 1/3 cheaper than Solar PV.

    Lest you think I’m not object, consider this: I own a company which caters to the PV industry, and only the PV industry. It is in my best financial interest to promote PV over giant Solar Thermal fields. That said, it’s pretty clear to me that for then next 10-20 years they are not in competition. We need lots of clean energy, and we need it now, and there’s no way Nuclear or Solar thermal is going to make a dent in that need over then next 10-15 years enough to remotely alleviate our energy needs.

    PV will be driven largely by it’s ability to attract private investors, at a very low level, and usually by PPA arrangements. These will be completely unrelated to investments going to (and even diverted to) solar thermal. What’s going to drive this is structuring laws and gov’t utility requirements to encourage PPA.

    Comment by davea0511 — October 19, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  3. Dave, thanks for the response.

    FYI, I’m no fan of nuclear energy, never will be….

    My questions were not quite answered, because your figures do not reveal the hidden costs to the environment.

    You say that Ausra may be touting extremely low figures, which I suppose is in order to secure subsidies. The reason we’re shunning coal, oil and nuclear power is because they claim to deliver power at low $/watt to households and businesses, but leave us cleanups and environmental damage such as destroyed water tables in arid regions. That ends up costing society much more.

    Acciona represents the largest lobby for big solar-thermal and stands to reap hefty benefits if it can convince congressmen to fund its projects. For that reason alone, I would take any figures, projections, reassurances and promises from them with a grain of salt.

    Btw, I do not understand why a PV entrepreneur would make remarks you direct at PV in your original post. While the true costs of PV have become clearer over time, CSP is at a point where understatement of costs and exaggeration of benefits have become tricks to astound would-be financiers.


    Comment by Blessedsun — October 20, 2009 @ 8:27 am

  4. >your figures do not reveal the hidden costs to the environment.
    You’re right, but the analysis required for that is VERY involved, nonetheless it’s something I’ve been meaning to do and post it at some future time. I’ve already done some back of napkin numbers looking at PV silicon purification / annealing etc vs environment costs of CSP including installation material processing, installation, Semi-truck transport, Power logistics & infrastructure, etc. and I can promise you you’ll be amazed at the result.

    >Btw, I do not understand why a PV entrepreneur would make remarks you direct at PV in your original post.

    Because even though I made it sound like they’re in competition, they aren’t. Besides if I’m honestly concerned about the environment I’ll take as objective approach as possible no matter what impact it might have on my business – but I’m convinced CSP will have no adverse affect on PV no matter how widely it’s adopted.

    Electric rates are expected to climb 6%/yr for the next 20+ years. That’s what will drive PV sales, and no amount of Solar Thermal is going to have any affect on that despite that thermal will supply far more energy savings than PV. Those in the know know that basically what we have on our hands is a massive train wreck coming up in the energy industry, and that means we need to pull out all the stops to alleviate the suffering that will result.

    I know there’s a mentality that thinks CSP is robbing PV of much needed development $, but in fact CSP will overtake PV on a per Watt basis even after getting considerably LESS gov’t $ than PV. This is mostly because CSP costs less/Watt to start with and because of that dynamic there are great incentives for huge private investments by investment groups and utilities.

    There’s also a healthy competition that would disappear if PV was the only kid on the block, which scenario would result in development stagnation and a non-viable offering.

    I’m convinced in fact, that as CSP becomes more mainstream solar will improve it’s reputation and PV will gain much greater acceptance by association. The fact is that there are tremendous forces out there right now to disparage PV because of it’s high cost, and we need technologies that prove solar in some form makes sense in a bad economy and CSP is that stepping stone.

    Of all the technologies out there PV manufacturing on a per-watt basis is the most labor-intensive and materials-intensive by far. Even with vast economies of scale and unheard-of investment it cannot be scaled up FAST ENOUGH to make even a dent in our energy-matrix anytime soon (like the next 20 years). It’s just impossible … the problem is NOT one of investment, but rather it’s an engineering problem … kind of like trying to build an 2009 car with 1989 technology.

    In other words a pure PV world (and nothing else) simply is not even remotely technically possible. However … we can scale up the quickest-to-market “much cleaner than fossil-fuels” technologies while doing all we can to put PV manufacturing, which is my preferred technology, on the fast track. That’s why all of Europe is making such huge investments in north africa for CSP, not because CSP is better, but because PV isn’t viable at those scales right now now will they be any time soon.

    Another thing worth considering is PV real-estate. The average household only has enough full-sun real-estate to supply only about 30% of their needs. This is because of all the multi-family dwellings, trees, and unoptimal angles.

    THINK CSP/PV vs. OIL, not CSP vs. PV
    You talk about damage to the environment, but on a global scale any of the renewable energies (except for
    biofuels) is about 100x better than what oil is doing now to the environment and ideological stubbornness is nothing short of choosing to continue as we’ve been. The “no-compromise PV-only” mindset leads to a dead future full of rich oil companies, a bankrupt world, and a dead planet.

    Lastly, as an engineer I’ve learned that you can only fight the inevitable for so long. Run the numbers, find out what the best business choice is with regard to intelligent environmental use and a global world view, and you’ll know what the future holds. It holds both PV and CSP, despite PV getting the lion’s share of publicity and funding in the past, and in the future, and the two go hand in hand.

    Comment by davea0511 — October 21, 2009 @ 3:22 am

  5. Dear Dave,

    Thanks for the detailed response. It’s good to know that you do not see it as an either/or situation between PV and PSP.

    I do not discount CSP wholesale. Rather, I want its advocates to consider all its aspects and not only the $/watt calculations. At the moment, there’s a surge in publicity aimed at capturing Obama’s green subsidies. One such example is Desertec, which you probably meant when you mentioned Europe’s CSP trends.

    >This is mostly because CSP costs less/Watt to start with and because of that dynamic there are great incentives for huge private investments by investment groups and utilities.

    Desertec is made up of about 15 highly profitable multinationals, but they are not investing their own money. Instead, they are looking about $550 billion from PUBLIC and EU sources. If CSP is such a surefire investment, why are they not willing to risk their own capital up-front?

    My bias towrds PV is based on the fact that I look at energy from an African perspective. PV, despite its limitations, is tried and tested, and applicable at individual, household or community level. The drop in prices in the past year have made the technology more accessible to consumers who otherwise were locked out by the prohibitive prices.

    CSP, on the other hand, demands investments at utility level, involves the use of expansive tracts of public land, and calls for transportation to the consumer using cutting-edge HVDC technology. Those are conditions that the African market will not be able to meet in the coming 30 years. Heck, even PV has been very sparsely implemented in our markets!

    Note: Two billion people in the world have no access to electricity. For most of them, solar photovoltaics would be their cheapest electricity source, but they cannot afford it.


    Comment by blessedsun — October 21, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  6. I’ve seen a lot of bad use of gov’t solar incentives so we’re on the same page with regard to skepticism of Solar players.

    >My bias towrds PV is based on the fact that I look at energy from an African perspective
    There’s no doubt that if the rest of the world used energy as Africa does that the global solution would be vastly different – distributed energy would be a 1st priority and in that PV is by far the clear winner. No other technology even comes close to PV’s ability to satisfy distributed energy generation (wherever the sun isolation exceeds 4).

    It’s unfortunate that current commercial PV efficiencies average only 15% because it severely limits PV’s ability to meet the need in the US and other more power-hungry nations, because it then necessitates that at least 70% of our energy needs still must be met by either solar fields, or other means … which admittedly has environmental impact no matter what is used (including CPV). I suspect that will always be the case, though efficiencies are improving quickly, though I’d be surprised if it ever got about 25%.

    Comment by davea0511 — October 21, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  7. >Instead, they are looking about $550 billion from PUBLIC and EU sources. If CSP is such
    >a surefire investment, why are they not willing to risk their own capital up-front?

    I’m sure there ar NO solar fields, PV and CSP, that are funded by the solar companies private assets, and in nearly all cases the gov’t (fed+state+local)pays the bulk, with the remainder by utility companies who have to borrow the money and raise rates to pay for the loan.

    Solar companies are already totally strapped for cash. In both the PV and CSP sector every company (except for First Solar) has been going through multiple layoffs this year and consolidating through buyouts, etc. It’s estimated that out of 50+ PV manufacturers worldwide last year there will only be 12 left by 2012. My own employer (Astropower) went bankrupt a few years ago and the guys from that company started a new one that is currently in bankruptcy.

    The only way to fund these projects is to do it through sources that have long term environmental as the #1 priority (not economic advantage). Economic advantage by itself does not make it attractive enough for any private investment firm because the return is too paltry … so the funds need to come from a source who: 1) is as interested in environmental impacts as economic return, and 2) those who have money.

    In other words, world/state governments and huge multi-national energy conglomerates. Sadly, no other entities fit that profile.

    Comment by davea0511 — October 21, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

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