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Vikesh Rajpaul

Programme Manager – Concentrating Solar Power – Renewables Business Unit Eskom (South Africa).

The International Energy Agency’s 2014 Technology Roadmap for Solar Thermal Electricity (STE) envisions STE’s share of global electricity to reach 11% by 2050, and that solar power (STE added Photo Voltaic (PV)) could provide up to 27% of global electricity by 2050, becoming the leading source of electricity globally as early as 2040.

The benefits of thermal energy storage have historically set Solar Thermal Electricity, otherwise known as Concentrating Solar Power (CSP), apart from other renewable technologies, and positions CSP as the solution for incorporating renewable energy technologies in the energy mix on a large scale. The ability to provide firm capacity and predictability of dispatch, together with CSP’s inherent ability to provide ancillary services to a grid operator, supports the argument for CSP inclusion in a system looking to diversify its energy mix and pursue a low carbon future.

Despite these benefits, and the global abundance of a freely available natural resource, the adoption of CSP technology has been met with resistance and it has not been embraced as might have been expected. Often arguments are made that CSP is an expensive option that is nascent yet immature, and still considered a high risk.

Regardless of whether or not one accepts these arguments, what is important to note is that often perception becomes reality, and while the trend towards lower CSP prices is evident, the cost of CSP in relation to the alternatives remains a concern that could impact the long-term sustainability of the industry. The need to reduce the cost of CSP, while clearly quantifying and demonstrating the value-add that the technology brings to the system operator, is something that the industry needs to address for CSP to achieve the penetration levels that the IEA envisions.

The energy landscape is constantly evolving. The industry in 10, 20 or 30 years will be far different from the one we are used to today.

However, perhaps a bigger threat to the industry is the emergence of the small-scale distributed or embedded generation market as a direct result of the rapidly declining PV prices, coupled with increases in utility costs. This has encouraged more and more well-informed, high-consumption and high Living Standards Measure customers to derive a portion of their electricity supply from self-generation. As the race towards lower-cost storage options such as batteries intensifies, and more customers go completely off-grid, the utility cost per user increases, further incentivizing remaining customers to follow suit –thus driving the classic utility death spiral. With potential to create a paradigm shift, this strongly challenges the sustainability of large–scale conventional centralized power systems and the industries that support them, such as CSP. Given international trends, it is no longer a question of if, but perhaps when this will happen.

Whether the CSP industry will be in a position to respond when this happens is largely answered by how the industry responds now. It could ignore the threat and continue with business as usual; fight the threat; or embrace it by adjusting the business model and service offerings to respond to the changing environment.

Whatever the decision, it is clear that the energy landscape is constantly evolving and that the industry in 10, 20 or 30 years will be far different from the one we are used to today. In our quest to make CSP relevant to the discussions today, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture - the environment we operate in and the legacy we leave behind for future generations.

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