The experts are categorical: Chile, due to the availability of land, lithium salts and the excellent solar radiation from the north, is one of the best places in the world to develop solar thermal plants capable of delivering energy 24 hours a day, but the conditions for market that allows its full development.
By Cristián Venegas
This has been a particularly relevant year for concentrated solar power (CSP). Spain recently announced that its National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC) will consider 22 GWh per year of solar thermal; At the same time, China replaces its fossil fuel matrix with CSP + variable renewables, at a rate of 2 GWh/year, and already has at least 900 MW under construction and assigned based on this technology.
Likewise, Australia has closed a CSP project for Canberra airport, in addition to other investments in manganese plants; while Egypt is implementing 250 MW for desalination plants. This is highlighted by the executive manager of the Association of Concentrated Solar Power (ACSP), Cristián Sepúlveda, who warns that “Chile cannot be marginalized from this growth, considering that we have the best direct solar irradiation in the world, the largest supplier of salts. , excellent quality land and everything the Atacama Desert offers.”
For the helmsman of the ACSP “there is a before and after in the future of CSP in Chile”, since, “after years of conversations and interactions with the different authorities, they have finally understood that it is necessary to incorporate storage in our matrix, and that it is necessary to stop the excessive entry of variable renewable energies into the system, because otherwise the discharge will only continue to increase.”
In this sense, Sepúlveda says that two great advances can be seen: “for the first time in the bidding rules for regulated clients this year, there are changes that benefit technologies such as CSP; The contract years are increased from 15 to 20, this will obviously help encourage investment; storage plants with frequency regulation capacity such as CSP are incorporated; and an extra will be paid for those new projects that offer storage (minimum 4 hours) in blocks A (23:00-23:59; 00:00-07:59) and C (18:00-22:59)”
In parallel, the executive reported that the Energy Transition bill is being discussed in Congress, which has a particular chapter for storage and a volume of at least 2 Gwh/year, “however, we have proposed some modifications, such as extending the years of entry into operation, because the Government indicates that this would be until 2026, clearly this pays attention to the CSP and also to other technologies that provide inertia to the system, we believe that from 2030 onwards is the most appropriate date. But we must be fair, since everything today is much more favorable for the development of CSP.”
Pioneer in Latin America
In June 2021, after seven years of development, Cerro Dominador officially became the first solar thermal technology plant in Chile and Latin America to begin operations. Based in the municipality of María Elena, Antofagasta Region, the tower solar thermal plant has a storage capacity of 17.5 hours and produces 110 MW.
The power from the plant is captured through 10,600 heliostats, spread over an area of 700 hectares, which surround the tower and follow the path of the sun. Mirrors that are directed to a point on the receiver located 220 meters high at the top of the tower. Where the absorption of radiation is achieved by heating a stream of molten salts to a temperature of 565 Celsius, which allows water to evaporate and produce electrical energy through a turbine.
There is no better place
For the executive director of the Chilean Solar Energy Association (Acesol), Darío Morales, “if there is a place in the world where the concentration of solar power is feasible, from the perspective of natural resources, it is indeed in Chile, in the desert. of Atacama. Now what we have to do is generate the market conditions so that it can develop.”
Along these lines, he adds, Cerro Dominador “has shown that the technology is feasible, that it can operate, that it has no problems. However, today I would say that the renewable sector in general is at the crossroads of seeing how the market adapts, to be able to properly value all the positive attributes that CSP has.”
Regarding the challenges that technology maintains, Morales comments that there are still “some” and that “they have to be resolved,” because “to the extent that we are able to retire coal-fired plants, the attributes of plants like Cerro Dominador will change.” to be increasingly valuable, flexible, to be able to provide renewable energy 24 hours a day, and for that we must improve and adopt regulation.”
Cerro Dominador had a cost of US$1,000 million, which leads one to think that it is an expensive alternative. A statement that Cristián Sepúlveda, from the ACSP, rules out that “it is one of those that has most drastically reduced its construction and operation costs, as evidenced by the latest annual report of the International Renewable Energy Agency, an organization that brings together 168 nations, between 2010 and 2022, average total installed costs for CSP were cut in half (to US$4,274/kW). While the last installed project had a reduction in the installation cost of 58%, compared to 2010.”
For his part, Darío Morales maintains that “the important thing is that the attributes of flexibility that projects like Cerro Dominador provide are adequately valued, so that they can be profitable. Naturally, the larger the scale of the projects, the cheaper the energy they can provide to their end customers.”
When Sepúlveda was consulted about whether new solar thermal plants could be developed in Chile, he specified that Likana (450 – 600 MW), from the Cerro Group, “is the only project with a large part of the task completed, it has an environmental qualification resolution (RCA), permits environmental and sectoral, onerous use of land, interconnection permits, etc., but this tender for regulated clients will be the turning point for other new developers.”
Regarding this last point, he highlights that “today at ACSP we have received many more inquiries from the CSP world than we had received in five years, for example, a few months ago a new North American partner who is a CSP developer joined ( Heliogen), also other companies from Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Australia and China are closely following the process, so we are very confident that we will soon have other projects.”