09 September 2010

About That Cloncurry Solar Thermal Plant . . .

In The Climate Fix one of the things that I try to do is to present the scale of decarbonization in terms that anyone can understand.  So I present the scale of carbon-free infrastructure to replace fossil fuels in terms of three technologies: (1) equivalent nuclear power plants (such as Dungeness B in Kent, England), (2) wind turbines (such as the giant 2.5 MW ones in west Texas) and (3) solar thermal plants (such as the 10 MW one in Cloncurry, Australia).  I had wanted these to be actual examples of energy-producing infrastructure, so that I could argue that these technologies actually exist at this scale.

It turns out that while I am in good shape with my nuclear and wind examples, the Cloncurry plant has run into some troubles:
Cloncurry in the state's northwest was meant to be the centrepiece of a radical $30 million plan to use solar energy to heat water and generate electricity, cutting carbon emissions and reliance on diesel – and eventually taking the town off the grid.

But The Courier-Mail can reveal that three years after its launch, instead of a forest of 8000 mirrors the project consists only of four test panels and a fake tower behind a locked gate.

It was forecast that by now, a "groundbreaking" 10-megawatt solar thermal power plant would be using steam from water heated in a graphite block to drive a turbine to generate electricity. It should have been supplying power to the homes of 4828 residents.
The Government, which faces criticism over a series of expensive infrastructure blunders, is blaming the project's failure on concerns about light pollution.

Boffins are now looking into concerns that residents could be exposed to blinding light from the plant.

Energy Minister Stephen Robertson has broken the official commercial-in-confidence line of the state's commercial partner, Sydney-based Lloyd Energy Storage, to reveal the technological glitch.

"There was a glare issue exceeding what they consider to be appropriate levels," he said. "If the glare issue cannot be addressed the project will be moved somewhere else in Cloncurry or it will not proceed."

The State Government earmarked $7 million for the project. Of that, $900,000 had been spent so far, he said.

"We are talking about a sunrise industry here, no pun intended," Mr Robertson said.

"Sometimes we've got to take a risk with taxpayers' money to prove up this new technology."
Had I instead used Australia's Lake Cargelligo solar thermal plant, at 3 MW peak, I'd have had to multiply all the solar thermal plant equivalencies by 3.33.  So, for instance, rather than Australia needing to bring online the equivalent of 24 Cloncurry plants every week to 2020 (starting last January) to meet its decarbonization goals, it would need to bring online 80 Lake Cargelligo plants every week.  Details on the math can be found in this PDF.  Obviously, my overall argument is not affected.