Solar game is fast changing and cheaper to play

I remember as a kid in the 1980s, my sister and cousins would be playing endlessly on our Atari, a pioneer in gaming. I was too young to understand Pong or Pac-Man, but as I got older I became well-versed in Mario Bros via my own Nintendo gaming console. Then I moved on to Tetris via Nintendo’s hand-held device know as Game Boy.

Now the way we game has evolved into mobile apps available on tablets or smartphones – so much so that this segment is forecasted to lead the software industry. Deloitte expects mobile gaming platforms to increase revenue by 20 per cent this year to US$35 billion, making the Atari seem like an antique.

In technology there is always something new – and as it went with the Atari console, so it may go with concentrated solar power (CSP).

Improved, cheaper models emerge as technology advances. Which is why the solar sector may find itself with a relic in the form of CSP.

The hype around solar installations typically revolves around photovoltaics (PV), given that 227 gigawatts (GW) is currently installed worldwide compared to CSP at around 5GW. The reason for this is simple: PV is cheaper and has a quicker installation time because it has fewer moving parts. Yet ever since Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) announced this summer that the fourth phase of the 5GW Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum solar park would be CSP, proponents of the technology have been clinging on to the hope that their time to dominate is here.

The easy way to differentiate between PV and CSP is simply that CSP comes with storage, which allows the solar power to still be fed into a grid even when the sun isn’t shining. But this also means that CSP is more expensive.

Saeed Al Tayer, the managing director and chief executive of Dewa, said in June that he believes there could be a CSP price of 8 US cents (the lowest is currently around 12 cents) for Dubai. That’s almost three times the price that Dubai had for its 800 megawatts third phase solar PV project.

But many in the industry believe a battery breakthrough is just on the horizon, particularly with lithium ion batteries. And with this the possibility for the cheaper PV power with storage will come to life. Currently CSP’s thermal energy storage is cheaper than electrical battery storage, not to mention it has a greater lifespan of over 40 years – that is nearly three times that of today’s lithium ion batteries.

Claudio Palmieri, chief executive of Dubai-based CLS Energy Consultants, says CSP with thermal energy storage will play a vital role in the near future. But he added: “The long-term trend clearly favours PV and battery.”

If the main advantage of CSP is its storage capabilities, then how will the sector maintain any clout if that ability is easily available as an add-on with a cheaper option?

Mr Palmieri said that CSP is still appealing because it closely resembles conventional power plants. Yet in a world where technology is making major plays across a range of activities, remaining with the status quo because of familiarity may not be an option if the bottom line is cost-driven.

Prices for energy generated from PV could fall as much as 59 per cent by 2025, whereas prices for CSP could potentially drop 43 per cent, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Sami Khoreibi, the chief executive of Enviromena Power Systems, told The National last month that lithium ion batteries would follow the same downward price trajectory like in the PV market – which declined 75 per cent since 2008.

Dewa’s Mr Al Tayer told The National at the World Green Energy Summit in Dubai that the utility was open to any technology for the upcoming MBR solar phases, including PV with battery storage. “We’ll pilot the technology and base our decision on the pros and cons. If it’s successful, reliable and sustainable – well, why not?”

Does this mean that Dewa will reassess its decision to install the full 1GW of CSP at the MBR solar park? Well, why would a teenager today choose an Atari over a PlayStation 4 if the costs were the same?

LeAnne Graves covers renewables for The National.

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