Super-Sized Solar Power Plant Plans, San Luis Valley
Written by Imogen Reed
At an elevation of 7,500 feet, the San Luis valley bordering Southern Colorado and New Mexico is notable as the driest location at this elevation in the US and now as the site for one of the largest and most technically advanced solar power projects in the world. With its temperate climate and high exposure the valley has long been the proving ground for solar and wind power projects, many of them on a large scale, but the proposed new site is likely to be much greater than would be covered by any landlord insurance, and will set some records when it is complete.
Approval from the board of commissioners
The Sagauche County Board of Commissioners just this week approved the permit for the project, which, when it does go ahead, will better than triple the output of any other plants currently in the valley with a predicted output of 200 megawatts (mw).
Santa Monica Company driving the project
The company responsible for the project is the Californian based SolarReserve, founded initially in 2008 from the US Renewables Group, in conjunction with United Technologies Corporation (UTC). SolarReserve, through its affiliation with UTC holds the exclusive global license to develop solar power using Rocketdyne technology; the technology used in the US Departments Solar One and Two projects.
Sprawling location proposed
The technology on the proposed plant has already been the focal point of much debate and discussion amongst renewable engineering strategists. The proposed process is to use heliostats, which are mirrors that track the direction of the sun, and then direct this energy onto molten salt (or water), which through this process is turned into steam. There have been some questions raised as to the efficacy of the process, due to the large volume of space required in which to generate the energy. In this respect the San Luis Valley offers the perfect working ground. The valley is 8,000 square miles of desolate beauty. In order to achieve the 200mw output the plant will be sprawled over an impressive 4,000 acres of ground. The operation will also house two towers at almost 700 feet apiece and the heliostats alone will cover 1,700 acres.
Buyers for the power have not yet been fully confirmed
There are a number of firms who have registered interest in handling the energy output from the plant, but as yet only one has been confirmed. Xcel Energy, who has the advantage of closely located Xcel power lines, have been contracted to handle 100mw of the transmission capacity from the plant. For the remaining 50 percent of the power a buyer has yet to be found.
Technology in the plant under close scrutiny
There is no doubt that the technology for the proposed San Luis site will be watched closely by competitors in the market; particularly by those in the production of conventional solar power which is produced through a photovoltaic system known as concentrated solar power (CSP). There has not yet been a successful alternative to this and the approval for the San Luis site comes hot on the heels of the asset auction of Stirling Energy System’s Maricopa Solar which bankrupted in September 2011.
Firms viewing dry cooling systems
Among the difficulties faced by CSP are the energy requirements for the process, in particular the volume of water required for the cooling of mirrors and lenses. In this respect a location like the San Luis Valley stands at a distinct disadvantage. The lack of natural precipitation in the area means that there is a considerable energy drain in obtaining and maintaining the water requirements for the system. Many solar energy providers are turning their interests to dry cooling systems despite the fact that they are initially more expensive to operate.
Companies championing Concentrating Solar Power
There is some global impetus behind the rise of concentrating solar power and among those championing its progress are the German technology giant Siemens AG; the Spanish energy firm Acciona SA and the Swiss outfit ABB Ltd. These have joined with other firms to create a lobbying group Concentrating Solar Power Alliance in an effort to influence US lawmakers and regulators on the advantages of CPS technology. The performance of the San Luis Plant will provide some leverage for the group in support of their arguments.
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere