Europe stands up to lead the solar-thermal electricity way
All-too-often it takes global disasters or looming events to bring countries together for a common cause. Climate change is perhaps the biggest 'event' of this kind, an existential threat driving international research cooperation in a new sustainable solution called solar-thermal electricity (STE). But it takes leadership to forge such a grand alliance of scientists, engineers, technicians and companies prepared to back progress in this field. Europe stood up when it was needed.
© jcg_oida #69776352, source: stock.adobe.com 2019
The northern hemisphere is still recovering from what was the hottest summer in living memory. It was not an anomaly. The planet is heating up and the science tells us that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel for energy (and in industry and transport) are largely to blame. Renewable energy from sources like the sun, wind and hydro-generation have been around for some years and have proven to be effective.
And it is Europe that has led the way in regional and global efforts to tackle climate change (Paris Agreement) and in foresighted energy (Energy Union) and resource efficiency (Circular Economy) initiatives which underpin the transition to a low-carbon, secure and competitive economy.
But while great progress has been made towards these goals, there is no room for complacency, according to researchers from Spain’s Centre for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research, which led an ambitious four-year programme to further develop and establish solar-thermal electricity technology solutions for the future. The EU-funded STAGE-STE project behind this effort was prepared in the framework of the European Energy Research Alliance’s (EERA) joint programme on concentrating solar power (CSP).
“We set the stage, literally, for Europe to become the ‘natural gateway’ for technology transfer and sector development in solar thermal concentration techniques,” notes the research team. The project provided a “sound basis” for intensive collaboration in well-defined CSP research activities covering diverse technologies, regional/geographical settings (i.e. varying solar intensity), and pricing scenarios.
Patents, innovations and more
“A number of noteworthy innovations have been brought to bear within the project’s different research areas,” reveals STAGE-STE’s Ricardo Sanchez of the Plataforma Solar de Almería. “Breakthroughs in thermal energy storage systems, materials, solar fuels, CSP desalination, and in line- and point-focusing technologies were achieved.”
Specific highlights included:
International, by design
“One vital thing that made STAGE-STE different from all previous CSP projects is the involvement of nearly all major global players to identify and address the main scientific and technological obstacles to boosting the efficiency and reducing the cost of solutions now being rolled out,” says Julian Blanco, Director of the Plataforma Solar de Almería and STAGE-STE’s coordinator.
Indeed, the project brought together 43 partners, including solar energy institutes, national agencies, specialist organisations and companies from 19 countries covering every major geographical region. Best practices, data and know-how were generated and shared by participating groups, including the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association (Belgium), the Institute of Electrical Engineering-China Academy of Sciences, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (Australia), Mexico’s National Autonomous University, as well as partners in the Middle East and North Africa.
For example, having the University Cadi Ayyad (UCA) in Morocco on-board offered insights into the challenges of developing and deploying CSP technologies in desert environments. UCA’s expertise in thermally processing phosphate ores using CSP has since proven invaluable in Morocco. STAGE-STE helped UCA forge close ties with institutes and labs interested in CSP developments, leading to the launch of several research projects with other European institutions on energy, in general, and on concentrating solar energy, in particular.
Brazilian partners in the project reported a similar experience. “STAGE-STE was really an excellent opportunity for our team to establish important connections, exchange information and work collaboratively on novel processes,” says Celso Eduardo Lins de Oliveira from the University of São Paulo’s Department of Biosystems Engineering.
“STAGE-STE helped us continue to develop low-cost heliostats enabling small-scale CSP plants to be integrated into agro-industrial projects and, thus, promoting a clean energy source for populations in developing areas, while generating jobs and scientific opportunities as well,” he adds.
STAGE-STE made a significant contribution to the EU Strategic Energy Technology Plan’s Implementation Plan on CSP. Many students and emerging scientists also benefited through internships, courses and exchanges in the CSP field. “Indeed, this sort of collaborative effort was unrivalled anywhere in the world,” believes Prof. Blanco, placing the STAGE-STE alliance in a prime position to carry on as the reference point for developing and, ultimately, harnessing solar-thermal electricity.