Article - Issue 19, May/June 2004

Concentrating solar power for sustainable electricity generation: Perspectives

Hans Müller-Steinhagen FREng and Franz Trieb

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In the second part of their article, Müller-Steinhagen and Trieb explain the resource potential and the economics of concentrating solar power as a strategic element for sustainable energy and water supply security in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. A strong cooperation of those regions is encouraged to make best use of their common renewable energy resources.

In 2000 the world population reached 6 billion people and the latest forecasts expect that this figure will rise to approximately 10 billion at the end of this century. These 10 billion people will most likely have a higher standard of living than today’s average, with assumptions ranging from 2- to 5-fold improvement. Since the standard of living is closely linked to the energy consumption, a simple calculation shows the dramatic challenges facing the worldwide energy sector in the coming 100 years. Approximately twice the population at a doubled standard of living will need approximately four times the electricity than today’s power park in the world can supply. Even if there were sufficient fossil resources to cover the growing demand, a point would soon be reached where the CO2 emissions are too high and would severely and irreversibly damage our ecosystem. Figure 1 illustrates the development of fossil fuel combustion, CO2 content in the atmosphere, average global temperatures and costs due to storm damages from 1970–2000.

Shell AG (2002) suggests a scenario (Figure 2) where sustainable growth in energy provision may be achieved in future decades. The future energy system will be a mixture of various factors. There will still be a significant portion of fossil electricity generation, but with higher efficiencies than today. There will also be nuclear power stations, even if this option may not be very popular today, and a growing contribution of several renewable technologies. At a large scale this will be mainly wind, hydro and solar thermal. Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) is the most likely candidate for providing the majority of electricity from renewable sources because it is amongst the most cost-effective renewable electricity technologies and its supply is not restricted if transported from the world’s solar belt to the population centres.

A key for sustainable development

Life cycle assessment of emissions from CSP systems shows that they are very well suited for the reduction of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, without creating other environmental risks or contamination. For example, each square metre of collector surface can avoid as much as 250–400 kg of CO2 emissions per year. Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of different power technologies per generated electric MWh are shown in Figure 3. The production of the power systems is based on an energy mix with emissions of 700 kg CO2 per MWh; the CSP value corresponds to an 80 MW parabolic trough steam cycle in solar operation, photovoltaics and CSP are assumed to operate under conditions of North Africa. For comparison, a combined cycle plant (CC) is also included. As illustrated, CSP power plants produce several orders of magnitude less carbon dioxide on a life-cycle basis than competing fossil-fired plants.

The energy payback time of the concentrating solar power systems is approximately 5 months. This compares very favourably with their expected life span of approximately 25–35 years. Moreover, most of the collector materials and foundations can be recycled or used again for further plants.

Co-generation systems for solar electricity generation and thermal seawater desalination could, in the near future, become a motor for the industrial and agricultural development of desert areas. A 200 MW plant of this type with, for example, 7500 full load operating hours per year would deliver approximately 1.5 billion kWh/y of electricity and 60 million m3/y of freshwater for irrigation and other purposes.

In the short term, at least 50% of the solar field equipment can be manufactured in most countries of the south, consisting mostly of relatively simple structures of concrete, steel and glass. In the long term, a national scope of supply of 80–100% can be achieved. Large quantities of desalted water as by-products of solar electricity will create a chance to reclaim arid land for human settlement, production and development and to protect regions that are now endangered by desertification. Thus, the south will strongly participate in the benefits of the deployment of this technology.

The technical and economic potential of CSP is tremendous: less than 0.1% of the suitable areas for the installation of solar thermal power stations worldwide would in theory suffice to cover the total global energy demand. Particularly attractive sites can be found in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the South American Atacama desert, the North- and Central American West, South Africa, Australia and Mongolia (Figure 4).

However, the exploitation of this potential would soon reach its limits if it was restricted to the national boundaries of the countries in question. For example, the countries of North Africa have vast resources of solar irradiation and plenty of land to place the solar collectors, but inadequate technological and financial resources and their electricity demand is still relatively small, although steadily growing (Figure 5). The contrary is true for Europe.

In order to exploit the renewable energy potential of both regions in an efficient and economic way, an interconnection of the electricity grids of both regions would allow for the transmission of solar electricity to Europe (Figure 6) and stabilise the North African power grid. This synergy would not only reduce the cost of clean solar electricity in Europe, but would also create considerable financial benefits for the North African countries, enabling them to finance the sustainable economic development of their region. The technology needed for such a south-north interconnection is already state-of-the-art. At present, 64 GW of electric capacity is transmitted by high voltage direct current transmission lines (HVDC) that are in operation worldwide in more than 55 installations, mainly with the purpose to transfer hydro- and geothermal power from its source to urban or industrial centres of demand. The length of such lines reaches up to 2000 km, their transmission capacity up to 12,000 MW.

In combination with combined power and desalination plants, such a policy would effectively reduce the risks of regional conflicts related to the increasing scarcity of energy and water in the Mediterranean and Arabian region and worldwide, and encourage good neighbourly relations between Africa and Europe. As an example, the 200 MW combined power and desalination plant described above would provide enough power and water for approximately 50,000 people in North Africa plus extra electricity for about 250,000 people in Europe (or for 2.5 million people in Africa, considering their lower demand per capita).

Market perspectives

The first commercial solar tower power plant is presently being built in Empoli, Italy, benefitting from a special rate for combined heat and power and from additional subsidies. Two pressurised 250 kW central receivers (designed by DLR) will supply gas turbines with hot air for electricity generation, combined with heating and air conditioning systems. The plant will go online in 2004.

The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) aims to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by increasing the market share of those low GHG energy technologies that are not yet widespread least-cost alternatives in the recipient countries. In the framework of operational program No.7 of the GEF, the governments of Brasil, Egypt, India, Iran, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco and South Africa are seeking the support of CSP projects (Figure 7). The GEF and other organisations recognise the value of developing clean and sustainable technologies and are offering significant economic incentives, to deploy initial plants.

In August 2002 in Spain, Royal Decree 2818 was signed, guaranteeing a premium of c0.12 per kWh in addition to the market prices, for solar thermal electricity in plants of up to 50 MW of power capacity. At the moment, four projects are being developed, ranging from 10 MW power towers to 50 MW parabolic troughs with thermal energy storage.

The Israel Ministry of National Infrastructures, which is also responsible for the energy sector, decided in November 2001 to introduce CSP to the Israel electricity market in 2005 as a strategic element, with a minimal power of 100 MWe and to increase the CSP contribution up to 500 MWe at a later stage. This decision was approved in April 2002 as part of the future development of the national electricity market.

The US Congress and the US Department of Energy, with support from the Western Governors’ Association, started an initiative of installing 1000 MW of new parabolic trough, power tower, and dish/engine solar capacity in the south-western United States by 2006.

All these projects add up to more than 500 MW of solar-electric capacity already in the pipeline today, with good chances to start implementation between 2004 and 2006. Substantially more project assessment is undertaken all over the world, based on those CSP technologies that now are ready for the market. Figure 8 shows a scenario of CSP market expansion, with growth rates of 20–25% per year, which is a conservative estimate considering the growth of 30–50% per year experienced by photovoltaic and wind power. Following that path, CSP will gain a share of 1% of the global power plant market by 2015, increasing to 2% by 2020 and to 5% by 2025. No negative impact on the labour market is to be expected from CSP expansion as the conventional power cycles and even backup fuels will still be required by the CSP plants, and additional personnel will be needed to build and operate the solar part.

The opportunities of using CSP for the combined generation of power and water are also impressive: taking as an example the countries of North Africa, a deficit of power generation of 84 billion kWh/y must be covered until 2025 if a growth rate of only 2% per year is assumed, which is a rather conservative estimate (Table 1). For water, the situation is critical as the demand will exceed the renewable water resources of those countries by more than 50%. With Libya and Egypt this is almost a factor of 2 because both countries have already reached their limit today. This demand can only be covered by a very efficient water management and the installation of considerable capacities for the desalination of seawater will be unavoidable. If this is done using fossil fuels, the situation may become even worse due to its negative effect on the climate, and the use of nuclear power would create other serious hazards. An increased dependency on those fading resources would not be sustainable in any way.

Combined power generation and seawater desalination by CSP can break that vicious circle. It will provide both electricity and water at an acceptable price and without endangering the environment, and create additional income from the export of surplus solar electricity. It will also not run into the trap of a future fuel scarcity or cost escalation. If only 5 per cent of the required water were generated by such plants, North Africa could export about 40 billion kWh/y of solar electricity by 2025. However, the maximum potential is much larger and it is only limited by demand, not by the available resources. Using this concept for the industrial and agricultural development of desert areas will thus create additional jobs and many other benefits for the North African societies.

Economics of concentrating solar power

With today’s technology, a 100 MW solar-thermal plant with 8 hours thermal storage will require:

4 km2 of land

25,000 tonnes of steel

12,000 tonnes of glass

30,000 tonnes of storage medium

20,000 m3 of concrete.

This would involve 4000 20-ton trucks or 2000 railway wagons for transport. This means an investment of c400 million, 1000 jobs during construction and 100 jobs during the 25 years of operation (Geyer, 2002).

With costs of c200–250 per square metre for the turnkey installed collector field, electricity from CSP is today somewhat more expensive than from conventional power plants. The technology must still run through a learning curve to become competitive within the next decade (Figure 9), with a realistic perspective of achieving collector costs of less than c100/m2. Preferred financing (as established by the German and by the Spanish Renewable Energy Acts), emission trading and support from the GEF will help to activate start-up funding. A global market initiative for CSP (GMICSP) initiated by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment as result of the Johannesburg Conference is presently developing a strategy to achieve further opportunities for project development and finance, building the bridge from the pioneer phase to future green electricity markets and emission trading by preferential financing in subsidised markets supported by the OECD countries. Whilst such a market has already been established by the Renewable Energy Act of Spain, a similar worldwide scheme, but supported by the OECD, is under consideration within the GMI-CSP.

The Renewable Energy Act in Spain provides a premium of about c0.12/kWh for solar electricity from CSP that adds to the merchant price of c0.035–0.040/kWh. This may be sufficiently attractive to start the first European projects by 2004. Under the solar radiation conditions of Spain (2000 kWh/m2/year), in the medium term, solar electricity costs of 6–8 cents/kWh may be achieved. Under better radiation conditions (2700 kWh/m2/year or more) and in hybrid operation, costs can be in the range of 8–10 cents/kWh today, with medium term opportunities to reach 4–6 cents/kWh.

Under very good radiation conditions (2700 kWh/m2/year or more), and using hybrid combined power and desalination systems, costs as low as 2–4 cents/kWh can be expected. However, even lower costs have been reported for conventional plants with subsidised fuel prices. Therefore, initial support for the market introduction of CSP is required. The ATHENE concept, developed within a study for the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, proposes an OECD-supported mechanism that provides long term power purchase agreements to CSP projects in order to reduce their financial risk and with that their capital cost. The start-up funding could be realised in terms of preferential finance between 2005 and 2020 including revenues from emission trading. The total support needed within 15 years for the worldwide market introduction of CSP would be, for example, in the range of only 50 per cent of the subsidies that Germany has to spend every year for power generation from German coal, or 4 per cent of the total sum spent on subsidies for nuclear power plant development and operation in Germany during the past 30 years. Full stand-alone cost competitiveness is expected within a ten year period at a total of 5000 MW of worldwide installed capacity, if a global market initiative is started now.


During the first decades of the 21st century, fossil energy carriers will still play the main role in the world’s energy supply. However, these resources will have to be used in a much more efficient way than today. The share of renewable energy sources will continue to increase until, after the initial market introduction phase, large scale renewable technologies will make up a significant and growing fraction of the newly installed power plant capacity. Solar thermal power plants, with their inherent storage capability and their potential to activate the synergetic renewable energy potentials of the countries of South and North, will play a key role in a sustainable global electricity scheme of the 21st century.

CSP technology for electricity generation is ready for the market. With adequate start-up financing, CSP will quickly run through its learning curve and achieve full cost competitiveness within the next 10 to 15 years. After that, there will be no further additional cost on the emission reduction by CSP. Moreover, the problem of sustainable water resources and development in arid regions is addressed in an excellent way, making use of highly efficient, solar powered co-generation systems.

During the introduction phase, strong political and financial support from the responsible authorities is still required and many barriers must be overcome. To achieve this, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment together with UNEP and GEF have started a Global Market Initiative for CSP (GMI-CSP) with an international executive conference of decision-makers from industry, policy and finance in Palm Springs, California in October 2003.

‘CSP systems are very well suited for the reduction of greenhouse gases and other pollutants without creating other environmental risks or contamination.’

‘With adequate financing, CSP will achieve full cost competitiveness within the next 10–15 years’

Hans MÜller-Steinhagen FREng and Franz Trieb

Institute of Technical Thermodynamics, German Aerospace Centre, (DLR), Stuttgart, Germany

Prof. Hans Müller-Steinhagen, FREng, is the director of the Institute of Technical Thermodynamics of the German Aerospace Centre and of the Institute for Thermodynamics and Thermal Engineering at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. Previously, he was Head of School in the University of Surrey, Associate Professor in the University of Auckland and Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia. For his work on multiphase/multicomponent heat and mass transfer, he was awarded doctorates by the Universities of Karlsruhe, Auckland and Nuremberg-Erlangen. Present research activities are focused on efficient and environmentally benign energy conversion processes.

Franz Trieb has worked in the field of renewable energies since 1983. After the implementation of a hydrogen storage for an autonomous renewable energy system at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, he conducted a two-year postgraduate course ‘Renewable Energy’ at the National University of Tacna, Peru. Since 1994, he has been project manager at the Institute of Technical Thermodynamics of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), working on solar energy resource assessment by satellite remote sensing, market strategies for concentrating solar power and renewable energy scenarios.

References and additional reading

  1. Aringhoff, R., Geyer, M., Herrmann, U., Kistner, R., Nava, P., Osuna, R., AndaSol (2002) 50 MW Solar Plants with 9 Hour Storage for Southern Spain, SolarPaces Conference, Zurich>
  2. Becker, M. et al. (2002) The Future for Renewable Energy 2, EUREC Agency, James & James (Science Publishers) London
  3. Geyer, M., Lüpfert, E., Osuna, R., Esteban, A., Schiel, W., Schweitzer, A., Zara, E., Nava, P., Langenkamp, J., Mandelberg, E. (2002) ‘EuroTrough – parabolic trough collector developed for cost efficient solar power generation’, Proceedings of 11th SolarPACES International Symposium on Concentrated Solar Power and Chemical Energy Technologies. Sept. 4–6, Zurich
  4. Geyer (2002) HGF Workshop on Renewable Energies, Research Centre Jülich, Germany
  5. International Energy Agency (2003) World Energy Outlook 2003, Insights: eng/TableViewer/Wdsview/ dispviewp.asp?ReportId=1
  6. Price, H., Lüpfert, E., Kearney, D., Zarza, E., Cohen, G., Gee, R., Mahoney, R. (2002) ‘Advances in parabolic trough solar power technology’, ASME Journal of Solar Energy Engineering, 124, 109–125
  7. Shell (2003) Energy Needs, Choices and Possibilities – Scenarios to 2050
  8. Sugarmen, C., Ring, A., Buck, R., Uhlig, R., Beuter, M., Marcos, M.J., Fernandez, V. (2002) ‘Solarhybrid gas turbine power system’, Proceedings of 11th SolarPACES International Symposium on Concentrated Solar Power and Chemical Energy Technologies, September 4–6, Zurich, Switzerland
  9. SUN-LAB Snapshot (2000) Solar Two demonstrates clean power for the future, US-Department of Energy
  10. Trieb, F., Nitsch, J., Kronshage, S., Schillings, C., Brischke, L. A., Knies, G., Czisch, G., (2002) ‘Combined solar power and desalination plants for the Mediterranean region — sustainable energy supply using large-scale solar thermal power plants’, Desalination 153; 39–46

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