Instituto de Sistemas Fotovoltaicos de Concentración, Puertollano, Spain
A CLOSER LOOK: INSTITUTO DE SI STEMAS FOTOVOLTAICOS DE CONCENTRACIÓN,
AMONG THE RANKS of alternative power options, solar power is still considered an up-and-comer. Wind farms just seem to nab all the limelight. But a government group in Spain is investing its faith—and €25 million—in a project to see if a handful of innovative solar energy solutions can make the jump from promising concept to commercial viability.
The Instituto de Sistemas Fotovoltaicos de Concentración (ISFOC) is working with seven upstart vendors to simultaneously build several utility-sized solar facilities that will put their nascent technologies to the test in four different areas of Spain.
The idea is to prove concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) technology works—and that it can turn a profit.
The basic concept behind CPV technology is to channel more of the sun's energy onto smaller solar cells using mirrors, tracking systems and other devices. This, presumably, would allow for more efficient energy collection.
When complete, the facilities will generate a total of three megawatts of CPV power. But just as importantly, the project will allow the team to study the effectiveness of each technology. All operational and maintenance aspects of each vendor's installation will be monitored to create a foundation of knowledge and literature that can help guide the fledgling industry and define standards for the future.
“The primary objectives of the project are to deliver power to surrounding communities and provide a showcase for CPV technology,” says Francisca Rubio Berenguel, research and development director at ISFOC. “To date, everyone has done research on concentrated photovoltaic, but no one has built any plants. We want to show that CPV works, and that it works well.”
The ISFOC project was formed through a research and development plan promoted by the Department of Education and Science from the Castilla La Mancha government and the Institute of Solar Energy from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.
Francisca Rubio Berenguel, Instituto de Sistemas Fotovoltaicos de Concentración
PHOTO BY IAN MCMURRAY
A bold solar project technology and in Spain sets out to prove an unproven build an industry from the ground up.
We are connected to the grid and we need to show a return on this investment. People are watching to see if we are successful.
—Francisca Rubio Berenguel
RESEARCH AND RESULTS
Once the project launched in September 2006, the group spent the first several months conducting a call for tenders, trying to identify the most promising vendors. “As a government project, we need to be very open and thorough,” Ms. Rubio says. “You can't just give €20 million to anyone.”
The original plan was to stick to three vendors: SolFocus in the United States, Isofoton in Spain and Concentrix Solar in Germany. But the project gained so much positive global attention, it received €5 million more to expand in 2007, adding four more vendors and bringing the total operating output to three megawatts.
The four new companies were Emcore from the United States, ArimaEco from Taiwan, and Sol3g and Concentración Solar from Spain.
“The publicity is so big, it's surprising,” Ms. Rubio says. “The project has been very good initially, and we've received a lot of positive feedback.”
Each of the seven players will showcase its technology at its own CPV site at the ISFOC primary facility in Puertollano, Spain. The first three vendors will also complete a second plant in either Guadalajara, Talavera de la Reina or Puertollano to show how the technology performs under different weather conditions.
Once the facilities are operational, the ISFOC team will monitor the technology, looking at multiple factors, including power-generation consistency, temperature, radiation output, maintenance requirements, safety, weather effects, and any other issues of interest to ISFOC and the vendors.
“We have bilateral agreements with each vendor that include research plans based on their needs,” Ms. Rubio says. “One may be more interested in the impact of wind, while another is more concerned about cleaning data.”
The facilities are also expected to generate enough energy to pay back the initial investment. “We are connected to the grid and we need to show a return on this investment,” she says. “People are watching to see if we are successful.”
To manage both the research and management aspects of the project, the ISFOC team is broken into two divisions:
- The operational team oversees the vendors' installation and maintenance of the technology.
- The research team studies the technology and works to define and author standards for the solar energy industry.
Ms. Rubio admits the project has encountered its share of glitches.
Financial issues have cropped up recently as changes in subsidies for renewable energy in Spain may put some of the participating vendors in jeopardy. As of September 2008, the government will move from paying €0.44 per kilowatt hour to €0.29 per kilowatt hour for ground-based facilities and €0.33 per kilowatt hour for rooftop panels. That shift will obviously cut the vendors' ability to recoup their investment as quickly.
“For ISFOC, it will only delay our ROI, but it will be very hard for the vendors,” she says. “They are start-ups and they haven't had time to complete the facilities to benefit from the previous tariffs. I'm afraid the change will be too fast for the smaller companies and they will find it hard to survive.”
Project delays add to worries, but those are less surprising, Ms. Rubio says. “All of the vendors are small and relatively new businesses that are still working the kinks out of their installation processes.”
The team has also had to contend with some serious layers of bureaucracy to secure the permits necessary to work in Spain. “The paperwork is terrible,” she says. “For two of the facilities, all of the delays are due to paperwork.”
One vendor, SolFocus, has overcome the delays and was the first to finish the initial phase of the project, completing a 200-kilowatt facility in Puertollano. The company also was the first to finish the second phase, a 300-kilowatt facility in the north of Spain, chosen to see whether colder temperatures impact the solar technology's effectiveness or durability.
SolFocus' technology uses mirrors to focus the sun's energy 500 times onto the optical rod. This allows the company to rely on smaller high-efficiency cells that use less photovoltaic materials—which means energy costs less to produce than with conventional solar operations. “Because it uses less material, it's very scalable,” says Nancy Hartsoch, vice president of marketing at the Mountain View, California, USA-based company.
And unlike many solar players, the company uses germanium, a metal element primarily obtained from the smelting of zinc ores, rather than silicon, as the base material of its cells.
“There's a shortage of silicon right now, but globally, there is a large supply of germanium, which has barely been tapped at this time,” she says. “There is enough germanium out there to support these types of projects for five years.”
Ms. Hartsoch is optimistic about the technology and the progress the SolFocus team has made on the ISFOC project. But she admits there's still a lot of work to be done before CPV becomes a commercial reality.
“The technology has been around since the 1970s but historically, there were issues around cell efficiency, optical design and manufacturability,” she says. In the past few years, the technology has advanced, though, pointing to a “cost roadmap that is very promising.”
“A key thing to understand with CPV technology is that it is most effective in areas where the solar resource is very high,” Ms. Hartsoch says. “When this is the case—even though CPV is a new technology—it's moving down the cost curve to bring payback in line with traditional photovoltaic in 2009.”
Being a part of the ISFOC project will help SolFocus and the other vendors move along that timeline by making the case that CPV can work in large-scale facilities and compiling the data necessary to prove its reliability and output.
“For those who are skeptical about whether CPV is ready for commercial deployment, this project is the answer,” Ms. Hartsoch says.
And it gains even more credibility with so many vendors involved, each armed with their own version of the technology. “If we were the only ones, we wouldn't be building an industry,” she notes. “To have a market, you have to have three to four strong players.”
Ms. Rubio is convinced that, despite project delays and money fears, ISFOC has chosen the best players to take on that role. “We selected vendors for ISFOC that could prove they were in control of the quality of their technology,” she says. Before being chosen, each company had to present proof of concept data, prototype samples and test data showing the technology could work on a large scale.
“When you are working with new technology, it has to be about quality, not just about improving costs,” she says. “If you have problems in the beginning of such a project due to poor quality, people won't believe in the technology. You'll get bad publicity and you won't get the technology off the ground.”
But this project could prove it's nothing but blue skies for solar. –Sarah Fister Gale
Amount Instituto de Sistemas Fotovoltaicos de Concentración has budgeted for project
PM NETWORK NOVEMBER 2008 WWW.PMI.ORG
NOVEMBER 2008 PM NETWORK