Concentration is the key

1 August 2007

A $A420 million 154 MW solar power station, claimed to be the biggest and most efficient PV plant in the world, is to be built in Victoria state, Australia, with the help of $A135 million in grants from federal and state governments. Developer Solar Systems, an Australian company which specialises in concentrators, has combined its own technology with the 'unique, world leading space technology' of Boeing subsidary Spectrolab which specialises in extremely high efficiency PV cells, high performance equipment originally developed to power orbiting satellites. Solar Systems has produced a combination that they claim can concentrate the incident sunlight 500 times, at solar cells which are three times more efficient, yielding an extremely high power output.

Full commissioning is scheduled for 2013, at which time the plant should be generating 270 000 MWh per annum and avoiding the equivalent of 396 000 tonnes per annum in greenhouse gas emissions.

Artist’s impression of one of the arrays of heliostats and collectors to built in Victoria state

Heliostat mirrors of the type to be used in Victoria, shown here in an array sited in the USA


The Australian government has decided to back the scheme, which is to be built as a private/public partnership, to the tune of $A75 million under the federal government's Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund (LETDF). Solar Systems was one of more than 30 companies that bid for $500 million under the LETDF programme, which aims to foster competitive technology that can be shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a significant degree. The Victoria premier Steve Bracks announced that the Victorian government will also support the project with a grant of $A50 million, in recognition of the benefits that the project could bring to the state.

The power station will be built in north-west Victoria on a number of different sites of approximately equal size matched to local demand and in consultation with local governments. A new company, Solar Systems Generation Pty Ltd, will be formed to construct the arrays, which will contain a total of 62 976 PV modules in 246 receivers being powered by19 250 heliostats.

Solar Systems’ md Dave Holland said it was an exciting day for the company, which has invested over $A50 million since it began developing the technology 16 years ago. “This plant is the first step in a strategic plan to roll out large-scale solar technology across Australia and internationally. It represents the beginning of a new international industry,” Mr Holland said. “This funding announcement significantly advances the company's technology commercialisation process that has already seen four smaller solar power stations established in central Australia.

“The project is also important for Victoria's and Australia's economy. It is expected to create approximately 950 new jobs at the peak of construction and be a catalyst for a new industry that will create more than 10 000 permanent jobs” Holland said.

In 2003 Solar Systems completed construction of this concentrator dish power station at Umuwa in South Australia, using a curved form of the concentrator mirrors used in the new array. The installation provides 220 kW of power for the Anangu Pitjantjatjara people

Policy U-turn

The grants package is a distinct shift in policy by a government known for its long-standing scepticism on climate change. Australia, along with the United States, was one of the Western nations that refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Prime minister John Howard has consistently refused to ratify the agreement on the grounds of the damage it would do to Australia's coal powered economy.

Criticised domestically and internationally for its indifference to tackling climate change, the government has been slow to acknowledge the role that CO2 emissions have played in global warming and consequently hesitant to encourage alternative energies. However with a federal election due next year, and polls consistently showing that Australians are very concerned about the effects of climate change, government energy policy has been significantly reshaped. This development grant and others like it are tangible evidence of the change.

Victorian premier Steve Bracks – a long time advocate of alternative energy whose state will be the first to benefit under the new scheme – alluded to Canberra's sudden conversion to renewable energy. "I think it's an important shift [to support renewables] and a welcome shift," said Bracks. "I think we are seeing from the federal government for the first time a recognition that there is such a thing as global warming."

Two new manufacturing facilities will be constructed in Victoria and key suppliers are expected to invest in expansion to meet the project demand. Approximately 70 % of the total project cost is expected be invested in Victoria.

The technology

The power station will use technology known as 'heliostat concentrator photovoltaic' (HCPV) and will consist of fields of heliostats (sun-tracking mirrors) focusing sunlight on receivers packed with photovoltaic modules, each consisting of an array of the new ultra high efficiency solar cells. The patented heliostat control system, PV modules and cooling system are to be made and supplied by Solar Systems.

Solar Systems has collaborated with US company Spectrolab to optimise for ground level power stations high efficiency technology originally develpoped for the space programme. The resulting photovoltaic cell arrays are claimed to be three times more efficient than typical solar panels, and further cell efficiency improvements are apparently underway. With the 500 times concentration achieved by the system itself, an array can, in the words of Solar Systems' technical director John Lasich, who led the development of this technology, be made to work about 1500 times harder than typical solar panels. If you can do this at high efficiency using low cost materials, you have, he says, the recipe for an infinite supply of clean energy at an affordable price.

“This new power station will demonstrate these principles and produce the most affordable solar energy yet generated.”

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