Low-cost Solar Thermal Plants at
Heart of Algerian-German Research Push
Mar 20, 2008 - Jane Burgermeister - renewableenergyworld.com
| The end of a Luz system two
(LS-2) parabolic trough system collector assembly
in operation. Credit: Henry Price
The development of a new generation of large-scale,
low-cost solar thermal power plants is the focus of
a joint research agreement signed between Algeria
Researchers will be sharing data and expertise to
speed up the market introduction of large-scale solar
thermal plants. The plants could supply up to 200
megawatts (MW) of electricity and desalinate water
for 50,000 people.
"Energy in the future will
come from many different sources, including
biomass and geothermal, but solar thermal power
plants can definitely play a big part when they
become cost competitive."
-- Bernhard Milow, German
Electricity from solar thermal plants could cost
as little as €0.04/kilowatt hour (kWh) [US $0.06/kWh]
by 2015 to 2020, Bernhard Milow from the German Aerospace
Center (DLR) said. And using solar thermal power to
desalinate seawater could cost the same.
"The technology and science is all there. It's just
a question of transferring that knowledge to those
who have the sunshine and optimizing the technology
to make it competitive," Milow said.
Electricity from solar thermal plants currently costs
€0.20 to 0.30/kWh [US $0.31 to 0.47/kWh], depending
on the location of the plant and the amount of sunshine
it receives. But with improvements in the performance
of plants and better sites, solar thermal electricity
could soon be cheaper than coal, and so generate huge
amounts of reliable, clean electricity in hot desert
regions, Milow said.
Even factoring in high steel prices and other costs,
a kWh of electricity could still be as low as €0.06-0.07/kWh
[US $0.09-0.11/kWh] if the power plants are in prime
locations, Milow said.
By 2050, he estimated that 10 - 25 percent of Europe's
electricity needs could be supplied by North African
solar thermal plants.
The agreement between the DLR in Germany and the
New Energy Algeria (NEAL) in Algeria will allow German
researchers access to data from the 150 MW hybrid
solar-gas plant at Hassi R'mel, 420 kilometers south
of Algiers. The plant is due to go into operation
in 2009 and has a 25 MW solar energy capacity with
a parabola trough design. The DLR researchers will
look at ways of optimizing the design and manufacture
of the component parts and the efficiency of the collectors
Another area for research will be thermal storage
"The DLR has 30 years of experience in solar thermal
power technology while Algeria has the right sites
for these plants, and has committed itself developing
the technology for its own use and for export to Europe,
so we can help each other out," Milow said.
Algeria has introduced a feed-in tariff for electricity
from solar thermal plants to boost the use of the
technology, and NEAL plans to build pure solar thermal
plants without gas as soon as the technology allows
it. The typical solar thermal plant of the future
could be as large 200 MW and supply electricity to
250,000 people and fresh water to 50,000 people.
In fact, solar thermal desalination plants could
turn as much as 100,000 m³ / day of sea water into
fresh, clean water — and so help boost agriculture
and secure the supply of drinking water in a region
increasingly hit by drought. According to a German
study, there is already a shortfall of 50 billion
cubic meters of fresh water in the region and that
shortfall is set to grow to 150 billion by 2050. Algeria
is particularly rich in sites suitable for solar thermal
The DLR has identified the best locations for plants
using satellite images to encourage investment.
"80 percent of the finance for solar thermal projects
will come from private investors who will be looking
for the best return. That means finding places where
there are as few clouds as possible," said Milow.
The DLR has used weather data going back for decades
to identity locations with the most sunshine. An average
of 2200 kWh of solar radiation falls on each square
meter of Algeria with 2650 kWh falling on the Sahara
desert region; this compares to just 1000 kWh falling
on a square meter in Germany. One study estimated
that solar energy harnessed just from Algeria could
supply 60 times the electricity needs of Europe.
To transport the electricity to Europe, a 1,875 mile
high voltage direct current cable is to be built between
Algeria and Germany, running through Sardinia, Italy
"Getting permission from all these countries to build
this cable could slow down the project for years because
of all the red tape. But the cable will be able to
carry electricity to Europe with only about a 10 percent
loss," Milow said. He said small quantities of electricity
could be imported into Germany as early as 2010.
The DLR is also carrying out parallel research on
a pilot 1.5 MW solar tower power plant in Julich in
"We need to do research on several solar thermal
technologies to find the best one," Milow said.
He said that the same model could be used in Australia
for electricity and water desalination.
"Plants in Australia could even supply enough fresh
water to ensure good, reliable harvests in key crop
growing areas that have seen yields drop dramatically
because of drought. Israel already successfully uses
desalinated water for agriculture, so it has been
shown to work in practice, " said Milow.
The southern states of America could also expand
their solar thermal plants and eventually export electricity
to the northern states, Milow said. Solar thermal
power plants have been in commercial use in southern
California since 1985. Last year, the 64 MW parabola
trough Nevada Solar One plant went into operation.
In Spain, 10 new solar thermal plants are being
planned. Spain, which introduced a 25-year guaranteed
feed-in tariff of €0.26/kWh [US $0.40/kWh] for solar
thermal electricity, is building Europe's two biggest
parabola trough solar power plants, Andasol I and
II, in Andalusia. The 11 MW PS10 solar power tower
has also started operating close to Seville in southern
New plants are also being planned in Abu Dhabi, Eygpt,
Iran, Israel, Mexico, and Morocco. Milow said Morocco
and the Red Sea region could also tap wind power in
addition to the sunshine to generate clean energy.
"Energy in the future will come from many different
sources, including biomass and geothermal, but solar
thermal power plants can definitely play a big part
when they become cost competitive," he said.
Looking into the future, networks of decentralized
and overlapping renewable energy technologies complemented
by irrigation networks and water desalination plants
could power economies — and large-scale solar thermal
power plants could be playing a key role in the energy
supply of many regions.
Jane Burgermeister is a RenewableEnergyWorld.com
European Correspondent based in Austria.