Concentrating Solar Gets DOE (Sun)Shot

Concentrating solar power (CSP) is getting a boost from the federal government, with the U.S. Department of Energy offering $60 million in SunShot Initiative money to fund 20 to 22 research projects “that have the potential to dramatically increase efficiency, lower costs and deliver more reliable performance than existing commercial and near-commercial CSP systems.”

The most common CSP systems – linear Fresnel, parabolic trough and power tower – operate by using mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat a fluid, which is then used to boil water, which can then drive a turbine and generate electricity.  A fourth type of CSP, called dish/engine, focuses sunlight on a thermal receiver to power a heat engine.

concentrating solar, CSP, SunShot

image via U.S. Department of Energy

The DOE’s overriding goal with SunShot is to drive the price of solar power down to 6¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) by the end of the decade. In its funding opportunity announcement [DOC], the department estimated that right now, unsupported CSP electricity costs about 21¢/kWh. The DOE said in-depth “roadmap” research completed in 2010 involving representatives from the CSP industry as well as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories showed that advances could reduce the cost of CSP to about 10¢/kWh by 2020.

Based on this, the DOE said, “it is clear that an ‘extra step’ involving significant improvement across all four major CSP subsystems – collector field, receiver, thermal storage and power block – through technological innovations is necessary to move from the roadmap goals to the SunShot targets.”

Preliminary applications for a piece of the CSP funding pie are due by Nov. 22. More information and application requirements can be found through the DOE’s Funding Opportunity Exchange website.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.