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Let’s conquer the Sun

Above, Bokpoort solar thermal plant, in South Africa. Courtesy of Aitor Aguirregabiria.

Above, Bokpoort solar thermal plant, in South Africa. Courtesy of Aitor Aguirregabiria.

Solar thermal power or Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) had a fast takeoff in the mid of the 2000s that turned this branch of renewable energy into a highly competitive industry. Many companies took to designing and building CSP plants, but not all managed to thrive in this market where technology is the key. Credibility has therefore been put into question, with large plants that have failed to enter into operation or have performed far below expectations.

Solar thermal power continues to advance in the world and does so largely with contributions from SENER. With reliability as a banner, its technology is present in 50% of solar thermal plants around the world.

The story of the engineering and construction group SENER has made its mark. Present in one of every two plants built around the world, its reference portfolio consists of projects that reach a throughput of 100% of the guaranteed value. SENER’s team dominates both parabolic trough (CPC) and central tower receiver technology, both with storage, capable of operating in the absence of irradiation. They are manageable facilities, which is a key advantage over other renewable energies, such as wind or photovoltaic power, which cannot produce electricity when weather conditions are adverse (in other words, CSP is dispatchable). Over the last 15 years, SENER has been part of the turnkey construction consortium for some of the most emblematic international projects: Andasol, the first commercial solar thermal plant with storage in the world; Gemasolar, a pioneering facility with central tower technology and a storage system using molten salts, and the first plant to produce for 24 hours without interruption; and, more recently the NOORo complex in Morocco, which, once built, will be the largest solar park in the world. In all, SENER has provided the crucial technology for these facilities. Today, SENER is recognized for the quality and reliability of its solutions.

The key is its technological advantage, achieved thanks to its pioneering start in this market and its efforts to size up each project with its feet firmly on the ground. In this sense, SENER’s knowledge enables it to advise its customers on the type of technology and the optimum dimensions for their investment, in addition to providing a differential with respect to its competitors.

TECHNOLOGICAL PREEMINENCE

SENER entered the concentrated solar power field in the 1980s with the design of the first components for a solar platform in Almería (Spain). But it was at the beginning of the 21st century when it saw the opportunity that opened up in the CSP market as part of the growth in renewable energies, which today are seen as the leading energy sources of the future. In addition, solar thermal power met a series of requirements that adapted very well to the characteristics of SENER, a company with an innovative spirit and a taste for finding its own technological solutions in multidisciplinary environments, thereby involving a broad knowledge of all engineering disciplines. And it was able to seize the right moment, first in Spain and then in the USA, South Africa and Morocco. Other markets, such as Chile and Australia, may soon lead to the construction of other solar parks.

Once operational, NOORo III, beyond being a test of SENER’s technological excellence, will be confirmation that the configuration of a central tower with storage capacity is going to be the solar technology of the future due to its high level of efficiency as well as its operational and maintenance-related advantages. But these plants will be combined with traditional parabolic trough plants, since there are settlements where this type of configuration is better suited to the characteristics of the terrain and weather. In any case, SENER’s technical team has developed all the technology in both systems, allowing it to be present throughout the value chain and to adapt to the requirements of each case, according to the customer’s specifications.

With almost 30 plants in its portfolio, SENER has unparalleled know-how when it comes to further improving the main components of facilities, from the solar field to the central tower receiver, the hybridization with other processes, the fluid properties, the troughs (SENER is now in the second generation of its SENERtrough® system, designed and patented by the company, but is still working on improvements), heliostats, instrumentation, etc. It can optimize the processes from the conceptual definition of the plant to the integration of all technology, since in these plants - whose fuel, solar irradiation, is not constant - it is vital for their proper functioning.

In addition, SENER participates in the operation and maintenance of the facilities, in a fully manner in those that owns, through Torresol Energy, and partially in those developed for others. As part of its customer service, it monitors each project to provide throughput reports, making it possible to ensure the proper functioning of the technology at all times but also being a source of knowledge and learning. Thus, each plant is an evolution of the previous model, since it introduces secure and reliable improvements in terms of efficiency. Innovation therefore becomes a natural consequence of the work itself.

AN EXAMPLE OF TRANSVERSALITY

In addition, solar energy has become the cradle of innovation within the home, with patents and other solutions having been awarded several internal innovation prizes, and plants, such as Gemasolar, that have been recognized externally on numerous occasions. And it is also one of the best examples of transversality, since its technological developments have had contributions from other fields, such as aerospace. It also serves as a strategic-model approach in other businesses, including wave energy, a renewable source that harnesses the power generated by the movement of the waves and has parallels with the solar thermal sector because it involves a partnership not only with other sectors - in this case with marine and aerospace - but also with its own business strategy. In addition, Floating Storage and Regasification Units (FSRUs), another of SENER’s innovative products with strong technological involvement from other areas, are being looked into within the solar business model.

TWO CURRENT R&D PROJECTS IN THE SOLAR FIELD:

HELIOCOST< – In 2014 and 2015, SENER has been working on a cost-optimized heliostat, an innovation funded by the EEA Grants Program through the Spanish Center for the Development of Industrial Technology CDTI. HELIOCOST plans to design, manufacture and install a heliostat prototype that incorporates innovations in all of its components (foundation, pedestal, mechanism of action and support structure). The prototypes have been installed at the Gemasolar plant, achieving a validated and reliable product that is easily industrialized and at a competitive cost.

Desalination – SENER has developed a patent to hybridize solar thermal plants and desalination plants. When both facilities work together, the cost of the desalinated water is reduced while keeping intact the power production of the solar plant. Therefore, this hybridization adds value to the mix of both technologies, as the combination achieves a more efficient performance of the plants compared to a stand-alone configuration.

ENERGY THAT CREATES LOCAL WEALTH

In addition to its capacity for being manageable, solar thermal energy is unique because of its ability to create local industry where it is implemented. Identifying locations with high levels of radiation enables the creation of solar parks, mega projects that unfold over years and involve the construction of several plants, with the same type of technology or combining both tower and parabolic trough facilities, as in the case of NOORo. SENER is aware of the consideration of its contribution to the actual country that regulates the solar power. Although incentives are becoming increasingly smaller, promoting local industrial development with high added value is a way to compensate for that effort. That’s because the contribution is not only in the form of labor during construction but also through the creation of an industrial fabric able to manufacture and supply the components that these facilities require, since almost all of them can be manufactured at the same site where the plant is installed.


NOORo III solar thermal plant, in Morocco

Solar power has been the cradle of innovation and one of the best examples of transversality in SENER

In this sense, SENER’s commitment is to design the plant from the outset, meaning that many of the products can be manufactured by the local industry. Thus, engineering adapts the designs taking into account any particular strengths in materials, transportation, existing businesses, social circumstances... leaving a technological sediment that will, eventually, become a source of wealth for the community. It is a process similar to the one undertaken in Spain, where those companies now supply components worldwide. In fact, many of these companies, which have been SENER suppliers, participate in this process by supporting local businesses to ensure that everything works right from the start.

It has been 15 years since SENER became involved in its first solar thermal project and its progress in this field is considered a success. With this experience, the company aims to maintain in the future the confidence achieved within the sector through efficient and reliable projects to further improve the profitability of the plants and anticipate the emerging needs of the market.

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Gallery

SENERtrough®-2 system, designed and patented by SENER  Gemasolar solar thermal plant in Spain  HELIOCOST, SENER’s new cost-optimized heliostat  NOORo I solar thermal plant, in Morocco

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