Concentrated Solar Power as an Alternative to Natural Gas

It seems that our energy landscape has been changing drastically since the US found new natural gas reserves on their ground. Since then the pros and cons of fracking have kept the world in suspense and we witnessed a shift in international political relations between the big gas providers and consumers. Renewable energies seem to have been pushed back to the second row.

Gas coming out from water-taps, contaminated ground water and other terrifying stories seem to come in hand in hand with the problems of fracking. And yet countries like the US stick to it and fracking seems to have a promising career even in Europe. But is this really the only alternative if we want to continue the path of a climate neutral and sustainable green economy? I hope not. At least for Europe and South Africa is hope for alternatives.

So the latest findings published in the Nature Climate Change journal come about the right time and the answer they provide is: Concentrated Solar Power (CSP).  Or if we want to be a little more modest: one of the answers, in some of the regions.

A research group from IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) “Mitigation of Air pollution and Greenhouse Gases Programme” had a closer look at the benefits and potentials of CSP as a large-scale energy production system in four regions of the world: the USA, the Mediterranean basin, Kalahari Desert in South Africa and India.

But what exactly is concentrated solar power? As opposed to solar PV panel where solar energy is directly converted into electricity, concentrated solar power plants first concentrate solar energy to heat up a liquid that drives turbines for electricity production. It does not have to be used immediately as it implies that the collected energy can be stored as heat and turned into electricity at any given time. To secure access to electricity reliably the network of concentrated solar power plants has to be coordinated and set-up efficiently to avoid disruptions by bad weather.

It is remarkable that such CSP plants could produce in the Mediterranean region 70%-80% of the electricity demand to the same price as gas-driven power plants. It is more or last the same share and security of supply as current nuclear power plants. The same is true for CSP in the Northern African context such as the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. India and the US remain more problematic, but given the vast area and the rapid development of technologies, this might change in the near future.

Whichever way you look at it, one things becomes clear:

“Solar energy systems can satisfy much more of our hunger for electricity, at not much more cost than what we currently have.”

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