NREL gets federal grant to bolster less-familiar form of solar power

Author: Mark Jaffe - May 18, 2018 - Updated: May 21, 2018

NREL’s Judith Gomez-Vidal

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden has received $8 million in federal grants for research to bolster “concentrating solar power,” a renewable energy technology that has been flagging as wind and photovoltaic solar power grow.

The NREL grants are part of $72 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office.

Concentrating (or concentrated) solar power installations (CSP) array hundreds of mirrors or lenses around a tall tower filled with molten salt. The sun’s rays are focused on the tower, heating the salt solution. The heat can be stored and released as needed, making CSP able to generate electricity at night or when the sun isn’t shinning.

However the cost of CSP has not fallen as quickly as it has for photovoltaics or wind. While utility-scale solar is $46 to $53 a megawatt-hour (MWh) to build and operate a plant and a wind farm is $30 to $60 a MWh, a CSP plant is $98 to $181 a MWh, according to financial consult Lazard.

The best commercially available technologies can only reach 565 degrees Centigrade and the DOE program is aimed at developing the next generation of CSP, which will be able to reach temperatures of at least 700 degrees, which would boost the efficiency and lower the cost of the electricity.

The increased temperatures could lead to a 40 percent reduction the megawatt-hour cost of CSP, the DOE said.

Under one set of grants, three teams, including one from NREL, “will compete to build an integrated system with thermal energy storage that can efficiently receive solar heat and deliver it to a working fluid at temperatures greater than 700” degrees, DOE said.

The NREL team, headed by Craig Turchi, received $7 million to  design, develop, and test a 2-megawatt thermal system consisting of the solar receiver, thermal energy storage tanks and associated pumps, heat exchangers, piping, valves, sensors, and heat tracing. If selected for the third phase, the system will be run in a commercial-scale test facility.

The other two teams are at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque and Brayton Energy in Hampton, New Hampshire.

In addition DOE made 15 grants to researchers dealing with aspects of CSP technology, including a $1 million grant to NREL’s Judith Gomez-Vidal is working on improving the molten salt fluid used in the towers.

Colorado’s two U.S. senators hailed the grant in a joint announcement Friday.

“Because of NREL’s innovation, Colorado is leading the country in promoting renewable energy technologies that address climate change,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. “We congratulate NREL on its selection for this funding to advance solar power in a way that furthers its leadership and lowers electricity costs for Americans.”

“This is great news for NREL and their work to further advance solar-power research,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. “Senator Bennet and I have worked together to ensure NREL has the necessary resources to continue to innovate and develop cutting-edge technologies. I look forward to seeing what new solar technology NREL creates using this new funding.”

Mark Jaffe

Mark Jaffe

Mark Jaffe has covered energy, environment and government issues for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Bloomberg News and The Denver Post. He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University and studied environmental economics as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. He is the author of two books, "And No Birds Sing, The story of an ecological disaster in a tropical paradise" and "The Gilded Dinosaur-The fossil war between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the rise of American science."