Hot new projects part 4: Plug and Play solar

And the final post in our series of hot new projects! ‘Plug and Play solar’ is not a new PlayStation game (we wish); it is a project to develop energy management software to manage the various renewable and traditional energy sources a building or site might have.

For example, remote mining operations or towns – like Marble Bar or Hermannsburg – have traditionally been powered by fossil fuels like gas and diesel, but more and more are turning to renewable sources such as solar. Traditionally, it has been up to the system operator to decide when to use which sources. This is often not as easy as it sounds, mostly because of the variable nature of renewable energy sources. Often this means that fossil fuel backup systems are left running just in case a cloud might pass or wind might drop – not the most fuel-efficient solution. What would really help would be an automated system able to intelligently handle multiple fossil and renewable sources.

CSIRO is working on the answer.

Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory.

Remote communities like Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory, which are powered by a mixture of renewable and fossil fuel sources, could benefit from the Plug and Play technology. Image source: Solar Systems

Plug and Play is a system where a user can ‘plug’ in the various sources and the system automatically and intelligently ‘plays’, or works out what source to use, when to use and how it should be used. You tell the system what your top priorities are – minimising diesel usage, lowering maintenance costs, or maximising power availability, for example – and it will make the best decisions about when to schedule the diesel generator, when to make the most of the solar panels and when to charge the batteries.

The tool will also be invaluable when designing new remote area power supplies. It’ll help to choose the best mixture of energy technologies for the site’s needs and decide how to size them. And then, instead of needing to have custom hardware and software designed to manage that unique mix, the Plug and Play system will help do it for you.

Senior project scientist Dr John Ward says it’s in the commissioning phase of these power systems that some of the most significant benefits will be seen. “Reducing the need for ‘on the ground’ engineers will be an important outcome,” he told the solar blog. “Currently each is different and unique and needs considerable specialised and costly engineering.”

This project is also expected to have flow-on effects that’ll benefit more than just remote towns. “Next stop would be rural areas, specifically with SWER (single-wire earth return) power lines,” Dr Ward says. “Such areas only have a very ‘weak’ connection to the grid, so they face similar issues to the islanded systems being targeted for this project.

“Our team believes that as the electricity grid evolves to have more interplay between consumer demand and resource availability, there’ll be a role for Plug and Play type systems to become mainstream in every part of the electricity grid.”

A remote site.

Benefits of the technology could flow on from remote locations to play a more mainstream role in the grid. Image: AdelaideNow

It’s no easy feat however. The project is worth over $2.9 million and will take several years to complete. We’re working with ABB Australia, the United States’ National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

The first phase of the project will involve the development of the technology and the second phase will see pilot systems set up in both the United States and Australia. The final product will be a cost effective, retrofit system that can be easily installed, without the need for expert labour. We think it will ultimately be of benefit to thousands of remotely based residents.

The project is one of four projects announced in December 2013 as part of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and United States-Australia Solar Energy (USAEC) Collaboration. It builds on our existing expertise in areas including solar intermittency, customer load management, the virtual power station, mini grid planning, and the work we’ve done on Australian standards for inverter energy systems and load control.

Check out the factsheet for more information.


Will it be cloudy on my birthday in 2015? (Hot new projects part 2)

We’re not quite sure why you’d need to know that, but if you owned a solar power station you’d be very interested in the weather forecast in 2015 we assure you!

Clouds have a huge impact on solar power. In fact, photovoltaic generation can drop by up to 60 per cent in seconds when a cloud passes over the solar panels.

Cloudy days will always be around but forecasting systems enable us to plan for them and use storage and other techniques to provide a reliable electricity supply. Image: istock

Cloudy days will always be around but forecasting systems enable us to plan for them and use storage and other techniques to provide a reliable electricity supply. Image: istock

Last year CSIRO released a world first report on this cloudy issue; we recognised that intermittency (cloud covering up the sun) is a major barrier to development of large-scale solar energy power plants and recommended that a solar forecasting system would help solve the issue.

Why is it such a big deal? For two major reasons: the grid and investor confidence.

The electricity grid requires a stable, consistent supply of electricity otherwise the grid becomes very difficult to manage and things like blackouts can occur. Intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar can be a tricky energy source – naturally they do not generate a consistent supply of energy. However, through forecasting we can predict the amount of solar power that will be generated over days, weeks and even years. In this way the grid network can plan ahead and build in the solar power to the general supply.

Investors aren’t going to invest in commercial-scale solar power until we can predict their energy yield, which is directly affected by intermittency, or the amount of clouds passing overhead. Map the clouds and you map the yield, which then gives investors a much better idea of the bang they get for their buck.

So there’s the problem… now for the solution! That’s where our $7.6 million forecasting project comes in.

Australian solar energy forecasting system (ASEFS)

Announced in mid December 2012 by the Australian Solar Institute (now ARENA), this project is huge. CSIRO and partners; the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), Bureau of Meteorology, University of NSW, University of South Australia, US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, will together change the future of large-scale solar in Australia, we have no doubt!

We will be using cloud forecasting techniques and data from across Australia to provide accurate solar forecasts ranging from the next five minutes up to seven days. In addition, we will be able to provide power plants with solar predictions for up to two years in advance. Imagine knowing the weather report two years in advance!

The expert running the project is CSIRO’s Dr Peter Coppin. He was also involved in CSIRO’s wind forecasting work a few years back. We asked him a couple of questions about ASEFS:

What are you most looking forward to with this project?

The most exciting aspect of this project is bringing the best possible solar forecasting to the Australian electricity system. It means we will be able to have much more solar power on the grid that we would otherwise been able to host.

What are the benefits of working with a number of partners?

This project has been able to bring together the best scientists from Australia, USA and Germany to work with the system engineers who can actually make the clever developments happen. Together we will build the world’s most advanced operational solar forecasting system.

Check out the other blog posts on our Hot New Projects, or click here for the full list. All the projects are funded by the United States-Australia Solar Energy Collaboration.


Hooray! Three new CSIRO solar research projects funded (part 3)

The support the Australian Solar Institute (ASI) provides to solar research in Australia has meant it’s now possible for three new CSIRO solar research projects to go ahead. What are they, I hear you say? Glad you asked. In this three-part post I’ll share the project descriptions from the ASI website, followed by my own explaination.

Project 3: Evaluation and demonstration of hybridisation of CST with carbon capture and storage

ASI contribution: $667,500
Total project value: $1,855,000
Partners: Delta Electricity
Summary: This project will examine the techno-economic feasibility of utilising concentrated solar thermal (CST) energy for the thermal regeneration of liquid absorbents in carbon capture and storage systems employed on coal fired power stations. The project aims to develop a new solar thermal reboiler for post combustion capture plants and a novel storage solution for low emissions energy. It also involves testing this reboiler and storage solution at a CSIRO operated carbon capture pilot plant located at Delta Electricity’s Vales Point Station in NSW. It involves a major electricity generator in the economic study and analysis of integration issues for CST plants with conventional energy generation technologies.

Solar and coal – can they work together?

Solar@CSIRO explains: Pure, 100% solar-thermal-generated electricity is one of the technologies we’re working to improve here at CSIRO Newcastle, but it’s not yet being used on a large scale for power production in Australia. What are being used on a large scale at the moment are coal-fired power stations – about 80% of our electricity is generated this way as a matter of fact. Wouldn’t it be nice and easy if we could just continue with the status quo but somehow make a lot of the carbon dioxide it produces go away?

A PCC plant is a collection of pipework and processes that gets ‘plugged in’ to the end of a coal fired power station to capture the carbon dioxide.

This is the idea (and the enticement) of Post-Combustion Capture. A PCC plant is a collection of pipework and processes that gets ‘plugged in’ to the end of a coal fired power station to capture the carbon dioxide. Instead of the gases from the burned coal going straight up the flue and into the atmosphere, they’d be passed through a solvent first (usually an amine) that absorbs most of the carbon dioxide but lets the other gases pass through. Eventually, however, the solvent gets saturated and can absorb no more CO2. This is when it gets pumped to the next stage – the regenerator – where it’s heated up so the CO2 can be released again and collected (and ideally stored somewhere safe where we never have to think about it again – but that’s a whole other area of research and development).

This regenerator, however, uses a lot of energy to run – about a quarter of everything the original coal power station makes, actually – meaning that if we wanted to end up with the same amount of electricity going into the grid we’d have to build one new power station for every four we retrofitted. This is one of the known issues with current PCC technology. The CSIRO Post-Combustion Capture group is doing a lot of research, in a lot of different areas, to try and overcome all these issues. But one way the solar group might be able to contribute our expertise is by supplying some or all of the heat energy the regenerator needs – from the sun.

This regenerator uses a lot of energy to run – about a quarter of everything the original coal power station makes, actually … One way the solar group might be able to contribute our expertise is by supplying some or all of the heat energy the regenerator needs – from the sun.

This project will see CSIRO partner with Delta Electricity to, firstly, crunch the numbers to work out whether it’s practically and economically worthwhile to ‘solarise’ PCC in this way. Secondly, we’re going to design and build a small solar trough plant to regenerate PCC solvents, and hook it up to CSIRO’s existing truck-sized PCC pilot plant at Vales Point Power Station near Newcastle.

If the project’s successful it’ll be the world’s first practical demonstration of pilot scale PCC integrated with solar energy. It could also be a good way for solar thermal energy technology to get a boost up the economy-of-scale wall: if lots of solar thermal collectors get built for PCC purposes, they will become cheaper to make overall, which will also help 100%-solar projects bring their costs down and hence become more competitive.

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Hooray! Three new CSIRO solar research projects funded (part 2)

The support the Australian Solar Institute (ASI) provides to solar research in Australia has meant it’s now possible for three new CSIRO solar research projects to go ahead. What are they, I hear you say? Glad you asked. In this three-part post I’ll share the project descriptions from the ASI website, followed by my own explaination.

Project 2: Solar hybrid fuels

ASI contribution: $1,585,853
Total project value: $3,917,350
Partners: Chevron, Orica, Colorado School of Mines, and a range of leading national and international researchers in the solar fuels area.
Summary: CSIRO will increase the efficiency of solar hybrid fossil fuels by developing and demonstrating new catalysts and membrane reactors to make the fuels at low temperatures compatible with conventional solar thermal storage. The product, known as syngas, will be suitable for electricity production in gas turbines and for making liquid transport fuels. The project also includes the assembly of a panel of national and international experts to formulate a Solar Fuels Roadmap for Australia.

Take a chill pill: working out how to carry out solar fuels reactions at lower temperatures – by which we mean below 800°C – could have benefits

Solar@CSIRO explains: I’ve written about SolarGas™ a few times before on the blog, so you know the basics: that we’re making it in Solar Field 1 by heating natural gas and steam to over 800°C using the power of the sun. At these temperatures the gas and steam react to form the product we call SolarGas, in a process that basically stores solar energy in a gas. Amongst the other uses of SolarGas, it’s possible to make diesel fuel from it – meaning one day your car could be running on fuel that got part of its energy (recently & renewably) from the sun.

One day your car could be running on fuel that got part of its energy (recently & renewably) from the sun.

Our SolarGas reactor can only function, obviously, during daytime. It’d be nice though to hook it up to a thermal storage system so that we could use stored solar heat to operate when there’s no sunshine. But the problem is that the current SolarGas process needs temperatures over 800°C, while commercial thermal storage fluids like molten nitrate salts start to break down once they are heated over 600°C.

One solution is to find thermal storage fluids that stay stable at higher temperatures. We and other organisations already have scientists working on that. But this project takes the alternative approach: finding ways to take the SolarGas process (and other similar solar-hybrid fossil fuel processes, e.g. using biomass, algae or brown coal instead of natural gas) and make them able to operate at lower temperatures. Hopefully, by working at the problem from both ends we’ll end up with a process and a storage fluid where the operating temperatures overlap.

It’d be nice to hook our SolarGas production process up to a thermal storage system so that we could use stored solar heat to operate 24 hours a day.

The issue is, though, that you can’t lower the temperature of SolarGas-like processes without the efficiency of the reaction also going down. That means although you might have 24 hour operation, you’d be getting a lot less bang for your buck (so to speak). But there’s a trick we have up our sleeve called a membrane reactor that might be the solution. It uses a thin metal membrane through which only hydrogen – which is part of the SolarGas product – can diffuse. If the hydrogen keeps getting removed through the membrane as soon as it’s produced in the reactor, more hydrogen keeps getting made to redress the balance, increasing the yield from the reaction again.

We’ll also need to make sure we have catalysts that can operate properly at these lower temperatures, and that’s another part of this project.

Ultimately it’ll lead to a plant being constructed to demonstrate this technology – possibly in Western Australia, where there is a heap of both solar energy and gas.

     

The other main stream of this project addresses important practical questions like: what types of solar fuels will be most suited to Australia’s needs? What are the potential economic benefits? Which areas of research are most critical? What’s the best strategy for bringing the technology to commercialisation?

The project addresses important questions like: What types of solar fuels will be most suited to Australia’s needs? What are the potential economic benefits? Which areas of research are most critical?

To answer these, we’ll be bringing together solar fuels experts from all over the world. This group – made up of industry members and research leaders – will be working with CSIRO and other stakeholders to create a ‘roadmap’ for solar fuels in Australia. The end product will be a public report that outlines all the major opportunities and barriers facing the commercialisation of solar fuels, and the environmental, social and economic outcomes of different commercialisation pathways.

In summary: it’s not only important to know how to do something – both in the sense of making a process work and making a project happen – but it’s also a good idea to know why you’re doing it – what the benefits are, both to the hip pocket and the environment. In this project we’re going to try and get answers from all angles on solar fuel technologies.

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Hooray! Three new CSIRO solar research projects funded (part 1)

 

The support the Australian Solar Institute (ASI) provides to solar research in Australia has meant it’s now possible for three new CSIRO solar research projects to go ahead. What are they, I hear you say? Glad you asked. In this three-part post I’ll share the project descriptions from the ASI website, followed by my own explaination.

Project 1: Solar energy management system for utilities

ASI contribution: $225,715
Total project value: $570,430
Partners: Ergon Energy, GWA Group
Summary: CSIRO will develop, prototype and evaluate a world-first ‘firm’ solar system using a solar energy management controller to monitor air-conditioning operation and utility network requests to reduce load on the electrical network, and when requests are made, remove conventional electricity load and introduce solar (supported by gas back-up) to power the air-conditioner. It will be tested in three residential buildings.

Solar air-conditioners could help everyone in times of grid stress.

Solar@CSIRO explains: For what might be just a few hours every year, the electricity grid that feeds your household gets pushed to its limit. These ‘peaking events’ usually occur during super-hot sunny days when everyone turns on their air-conditioners all at once, creating a huge demand for power.

But there’s only a finite supply of electricity, and there’s only so much carrying capacity in the power lines and transformers connecting consumers to those suppliers. This means that during peaking events there’s the risk of problems such as blackouts. Operators have to keep an extra-close eye on the network for signs of equipment failure or overloads at these times.

‘Peaking events’ usually occur during super-hot sunny days, creating a huge demand for power – and the risk of blackouts.

Traditionally, the way to prevent problems is to make sure enough power stations are built and ready to go when needed – that is, to have enough ‘peaking capacity’ installed – and to upgrade and oversize power lines (and other electrical network infrastructure) until you have enough network capacity to cover even the hottest summer days. The issue with both of these solutions is that they’re expensive – and considering that peak loads often occur for only a few hours per year, the cost of having all of that equipment just sitting there idle for the rest of the time is enormous.

But what if you could attack the problem in other ways – by lowering the demand, instead of increasing the supply? That’s what CSIRO is exploring in this project. Specifically, we’re looking at whether it’s possible to set up a system where, during those peaking events, electrical air-conditioning load can be reliably swapped over to another energy source (like solar energy) while keeping occupants comfortable.

Enter solar air-conditioning, a technology that’s being worked on here at CSIRO Energy Technology.  It’s able to take heat generated by the sun and use it to provide space cooling, space heating and hot water. The amount of energy this could save is huge – a conventional medium-sized (6 kW) air conditioner at full load, for example, uses the same amount of power as 12 large flat-screen TVs or 400 fluorescent light bulbs!

The idea in this project is that solar-driven air conditioners are installed in houses to reduce the amount of electricity needed during hot weather.

The idea in this project is that solar-driven air-conditioners are installed in houses to reduce the amount of electricity needed during hot weather. But chances are, the houses being retrofitted will already have electrical air-conditioners installed – a pretty safe assumption when you consider how many houses have air-conditioning these days (often with more than one unit per house). We think it’s pretty likely that in the future many people won’t remove their existing electrical air-conditioner when they have a solar air-conditioner installed; instead, they’ll keep it but only run it if it’s really needed as a back-up for the solar air-conditioner.

For this reason, we add a ‘smart’ controller that means the utility company can send messages to the household system requesting help at times of grid stress. So, if the grid is feeling the heat (so to speak) it can ask your conventional air-conditioner to completely stop using electricity and swap over to the solar air-conditioner with gas back-up if needed.

We add a ‘smart’ controller so the utility company can request help in times of stress.

This can be helpful to consumers because it can provide comfort and help prevent blackouts, and it’s helpful to the utility because it takes some of the strain off the existing infrastructure when it’s needed most. And because consumers pay for the electricity network through our bills, consumers benefit indirectly, too.

In this project CSIRO and our partners, Ergon Energy and GWA Group, are working to develop, test and deploy this system in three buildings in Queensland – one in Townsville and two on Magnetic Island. We hope that this project will demonstrate the advantages of a system like this, and show the benefits if it were to be used more widely in Australia.

They say the secret to a good relationship is communication. This new project will see what can be achieved when utilities and customer devices have an opportunity to speak with each other.

Comfort. Renewable energy. Helping the grid. It may just turn out to be wins all round.

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Thanks to Dan Rowe for contributions to this post.

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New report: concentrating solar power could provide 30% of Australia’s electricity

A new report has found that concentrating solar power (CSP) could provide about 30% of Australia’s total current electricity generation capacity, if forecast cost reductions are achieved.

Realising the Potential of Concentrating Solar Power in Australia was commissioned by the Australian Solar Institute and authored by IT Power Australia. It predicts that 2 GW of solar thermal could be constructed by 2020, employing around 4000 people.

The report also finds that a further 13 GW of solar thermal energy could be deployed in the near to medium term. Currently, Australia’s total electricity generation capacity (from all sources) is 50 GW.

The authors outline four actions needed before CSP can achieve its potential in Australia. They involve:

  • technology-neutral rewards for clean energy systems that better correlate generation to real-time demand (i.e. that deliver power when it’s most needed)
  • better communication from the CSP sector about CSP’s benefits
  • the establishment of solar precincts, where solar data collection, grid connection costs, planning approvals and other requirements can  be shared between projects
  • continued public and industry investment in research, development and demonstration of projects that meet Australian needs.

RenewEconomy has an article on the report featuring comments from lead author Keith Lovegrove. You can read it here.


Guest post: ASI is helping to share knowledge about solar research

Hayley Thomas from the Australian Solar Institute writes:

There’s a new place to hang out and learn about the latest Australian solar research breakthroughs and funding opportunities – ASI’s Facebook page.

This week we shared the latest results of Tim Schmidt’s ASI supported project ‘Upconversion of the solar spectrum for improved PV energy conversion’. He’s had an early stage breakthrough that could pave the way for record breaking 40% efficient solar cells suitable for rooftop panels. He achieved this result in partnership with Klaus Lips – his German research partner. A perfect example of what can be achieved with a bit of knowledge sharing – whether through attending conferences, workshops, Facebook or in the case of Tim and Klaus, research exchange. To foster more of this valuable knowledge sharing, ASI has funding available for Australian-based researchers and private sector professionals to undertake an International Research Exchange.

Solar is the world’s fastest growing energy sector and ASI’s Facebook page is one of the fastest ways to keep in the loop. But if Facebook isn’t your thing, you can sign up to ASI’s Solar Monthly newsletter on our website or attend events in ASI’s Knowledge Sharing Series. This Series provides a great snapshot of what’s happening in ASI’s $260 million portfolio of exciting photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) research projects, and workshopping of key sector challenges and opportunities. Last month, we held a PV Showcase at the University of NSW. Soon, we’ll be releasing details of a CSP Showcase. Stay tuned!