The new head of Australia's solar thermal research effort says the cost of generating electricity can be halved by 2020, placing it on course to match the renewable energy contribution from solar photovoltaic technologies.
Manuel Blanco, an international specialist in solar energy, started today as director of the CSIRO-led Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative (ASTRI). The initiative has $87 million in funding over eight years to advance so-called concentrating solar power technologies, which typically tap solar energy using mirrors or lenses to drive steam turbines.
Dr Blanco said a "technological leap" would be needed to cut generation costs from 25 cents a kilowatt-hour to 12 cents by 2020 but collaborative efforts between Australian and overseas scientists could achieve the goal. Costs had fallen by about 25 per cent over the past five years.
"The market for concentrating solar thermal power is not as developed right now as for photovoltaics but it will get at least as developed," he said.
Since solar thermal mimics many aspects of conventional fossil-fuel power stations, efforts to improve the latter's efficiency will also aid the spread of the new technology. Concentrating solar may be used to complement existing power stations or operate in combination with wind or biomass units, he said.
Dr Blanco, whose previous posts include directing the solar thermal energy department of Spain's National Renewable Energy Centre, said Australia was an obvious place to focus research.
"The country has a large potential for solar energy – one of the best resources in the world," he said.
Renewable energy lobby group, the Clean Energy Council, hailed Dr Blanko's appointment.
“The recruitment of an international leader in solar thermal power to Australia reflects the massive opportunity for this technology,’’ Kane Thornton, deputy chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, said.
‘‘It’s great to see Australia reversing the solar brain drain and attracting world-renowned leadership back to one of the sunniest countries in the world,” he said.
ASTRI plans a workshop this month in Canberra to hone research priorities, ranging from the forms of concentrating technology to the storage potential.
Issues such as the ownership of the technologies developed are also still to be worked out. The initiative includes six Australian universities, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia Corporation and Arizona State University.