Bloomberg News

F-18 Fighter Helps Solar Mirrors Rival Gas, Torresol Says

October 11, 2011

(Adds Masdar ownership, investment in sixth paragraph.)

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Solar-thermal power plants using technology from the F-18 fighter will compete on price with natural gas- or coal-fired generation within a decade, according to a Spanish company that’s spending $1.3 billion on the gear.

Torresol Energy Investments SA opened its first commercial- scale plant this month near Seville in southern Spain using an alloy developed for the F-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon engines. The metal is used to hold molten salts heated to 565 degrees centigrade (1,050 degrees Fahrenheit), hotter than an atomic plant’s fluid. The main heat receiver is made by a venture of Spanish manufacturer Sener SA and Rolls-Royce Plc.

Torresol, majority-owned by Sener, plans to use the 19.9- megawatt “tower“-style generator as a model for learning how to slash future costs by standardizing components, refining plant operations and building generators side-by-side, Chairman Enrique Sendagorta said.

“With our next tower plant, we’ll be able to reduce the cost of power rather significantly,” Sendagorta said Oct. 7 in an interview in Madrid. The test plant, known as Gemasolar, is profitable with Spain’s 29 euro cent (40 U.S. cent) a kilowatt- hour power rate, he said, declining to provide more details.

Spain has the most electricity production in the world employing solar thermal, a technology that’s increasingly being questioned in the U.S. for failing to match the cost reductions of photovoltaic panels, the main solar-power alternative.

$1.3 Billion Investment

Sener owns 60 percent of Torresol and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar has 40 percent. The company has invested 940 million euros ($1.3 billion) in Gemasolar and two other plants under construction in nearby Cadiz province, which use a different configuration involving trough-shaped mirrors arrayed in rows.

As executives learn more about how the equipment behaves at high temperatures they will be able to slim down the safety margins and back-up systems deployed in the prototype, reducing costs without adding to risk in future plants, Sendagorta said.

Torresol is developing similar projects in the U.S. and the Middle East, he said.

Gemasolar is the first using sunlight to directly heat salts to power its conventional steam turbine. It employs 2,650 mirrors to bounce light at a receiver through which the salt flows. The device, similar to a giant, circular car radiator, sits atop a 140-meter (460-foot) tower and generates electricity. It was inaugurated last week by Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi.

Higher Operating Temperature

The 12-meter high receiver is made from a metal alloy by Industria de Turbo Propulsores SA, owned by Bilbao-based Sener and Rolls-Royce. The company produces turbines and components for fighter jets, military helicopters and Airbus SAS airliners. The receiver’s surface operates at about 650 degrees centigrade and glows brightly enough to be seen from a nearby highway.

The composition of the alloy used is a commercial secret, Sendagorta said.

By boosting the operating temperature of the plant, Torresol increases its efficiency and brings it closer to competing with conventional generating technologies.

Solar-thermal energy from tower plants costs about $233 a megawatt-hour to produce compared with about $172 for photovoltaic power and $63 for electricity from a natural gas- fired plant, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Abandoning Projects

The disparity between solar thermal and photovoltaic has prompted other developers to abandon mirror-based projects or switch to solar panels in the past year. Solar Millennium AG last week sold its U.S. pipeline to a rival developer that will install panels on the sites it had prepared for mirrors.

Should utilities deploying panels manage to compete with fossil fuel plants first, “then there is no need to take solar thermal,” said Lars Dannenberg, an analyst at German bank Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co. in London.

--Editors: Todd White, Will Wade

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Sills in Madrid at bsills@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net


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