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Interview: Concentrating Solar Power Alliance Executive Director Frank "Tex" Wilkins

Jun 25, 2012

Cross posted from Scaling Green.

Last week, we interviewed Belen Gallego, Founder & Director at CSP Today and PV Insider, in conjunction with the CSP Today 6th Concentrated Solar Thermal Power USA Conference Gallego’s putting on in Las Vegas this Wednesday and Thursday (June 27-28).

Today, with the conference starting in just 36 hours, we present our interview with Frank “Tex” Wilkins, Executive Director of the Concentrating Solar Power Alliance (CSPA), an organization which includes Abengoa, BrightSource Energy, Sener, and Torresol Energy, and which promotes the implementation of CSP plants, particularly those with thermal energy storage capacity. Until August 2011, Wilkins was responsible for the development of CSP at the U.S. Department of Energy, working with industry, national laboratories, utilities, and state agencies to further the goal of increasing the use of CSP in the United States, so he’s highly qualified to speak on this subject.  For a helpful discussion of CSP, see the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s page on this topic. Also, thanks very much to Tex Wilkins for taking the time to provide us with detailed responses to our questions!

Scaling Green Question #1: The other day, Bellen Gallego told us that she believes "CSP isn’t doing all we can to communicate the immense value that [the industry] has," and that it is only "by communicating the inherent value added of CSP that the technology’s full potential and key role to play will be understood."  Do you agree with Bellen about this, and if so, specifically how would you recommend that industry players communicate the value of CSP to various audiences?

Tex Wilkins: I agree with Belen. CSP is less well known than PV and wind. The wind and PV industries have done a good job of making utilities, policy makers, and the general public aware of the benefits accruing from their technologies. The CSP industry is relatively new, expanding over the past 5-10 years from a very small base to a point where it is now supporting the construction of billion-dollar projects, with a supply chain that reaches into most of the 50 states. Its focus has been improving its product and getting projects built. In addition, it has taken steps to improve its communication; for instance, last March the CSP Alliance was formed, with the mission of better articulating the benefits of CSP to utilities, grid operators, and regulators.

Scaling Green Question #2: As a follow-up to the first question, how would you explain to people who aren't particularly familiar with CSP why this technology is an important one for meeting our nation's energy challenges, for adding economic value and jobs to local economies, and for cost-effectively generating dispatchable energy?

Tex Wilkins: A community gets much more economic impact from a CSP plant as compared to a fossil fuel facility. A study done by Black & Veatch for the Department of Energy found that each 100 MW of CSP built in California results in 94 permanent operations and maintenance jobs, compared to just 56 and 13 for combined cycle and simple cycle combustion turbine plants, respectively. In terms of economic return, for each 100 MW of installed capacity, the CSP plant was estimated to add about $628 million to gross state output, compared to an impact of just $64 million for the combined cycle plant and $47 million for the simple cycle plant. CSP plants with thermal storage also help maintain grid reliability. The electric grid is responsible for providing the exact amount of power to meet the demand of cities and towns at all times of the day - second by second and hour by hour. Historically, this has been done very effectively using coal, nuclear, and natural gas. Today, with the growing concern over the impact of global climate change, due in part to carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants, numerous states have established renewable portfolio standards requiring that a percentage of their power to come from renewable sources of energy. Solar and wind are the principal energy sources being adopted by utilities to meet this requirement. Wind and solar, however, are intermittent energy resources, which can pose challenges for grid operators who have to maintain the exact balance of power and demand. One advantage of CSP plants is that they can be built with low-cost thermal storage. This gives CSP plants the capability to shift solar power into the hours of the day when it is most needed. CSP plants can also provide ancillary services, such as quick response to help grid operators in the event of system contingencies. CSP plants thus have the capability to meet the changing power needs of the grid over time, including some of the significant changes that may take place with higher renewable production and the electrification of transportation.

Scaling Green Question #3: How did the Concentrating Solar Power Alliance (CSPA) come about, what are its objectives, and how does it plan to work with other solar trade and advocacy groups in making the case for CSP?

Tex Wilkins: Three companies got together (Abengoa, BrightSource, and Torresol Energy) with the objective of establishing an industry-wide organization that could promote the benefits of CSP to utilities, grid operators, utilities, and other key stakeholders. The CSP Alliance was formed from this effort, with a mission limited solely to CSP. Thus, CSPA is complimentary to other advocacy groups, for example the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which promote a larger number of technologies. CSPA membership is open and encouraged to all U.S. companies working in the CSP sector.

Scaling Green Question #4: You've been heavily involved in CSP for around 30 years now, including as team leader of the US Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Program. Given that unique background, can you help put into perspective for our readers where CSP has been, where it is now, and where you see it going in the coming years and decades?

Tex Wilkins: These are undoubtedly the best years for CSP we’ve ever seen. Over the past ten years, the CSP industry has grown by more than a factor of ten. Between 1990 and 2010, only two utility-scale CSP plants were built -- Acciona’s 64-MW Nevada Solar 1 trough plant, and Florida Power and Light’s 75 MW-Martin hybrid trough plant. Today, five CSP plants, totaling over 1,300 MW of capacity, are under construction, two of which will include thermal storage. Those two will be the first CSP plants in the United States with storage, and will fully demonstrate the benefits of having solar power available on demand day or night. These projects have been made possible by state and federal policies favorable to all renewable energy technologies. As mentioned above, a number of states have established renewable portfolio standards. For its part, the federal government has an excellent CSP R&D program working on more efficient, lower-cost systems; a loan guarantee program that makes financing projects possible; and an investment tax credit that helps new energy technologies compete with fossil fuels. The future of CSP and all renewable energy technologies is closely coupled with public policy. CSP’s future will remain bright as long as federal and state governments continue to support the development of renewable energy.

The information and views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of RenewableEnergyWorld.com or the companies that advertise on this Web site and other publications. This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.

Editor of Scaling Green (www.scalinggreen.com). Worked at the U.S. Energy Information Administration as an international energy markets expert for 17 years. Currently a consultant to dedicated cleantech PR firm Tigercomm.

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