Friday, March 23, 2012

Why AREVA Thinks Solar and Fossil Fuels Should Work Together

AREVA, the world’s largest provider of nuclear energy and a French majority state-owned company, made waves in early February by announcing its plan to add a “solar booster” to a U.S. fossil fuel plant in Arizona.
AREVA Solar Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) assembly

By 2013, AREVA expects that the H. Wilson Sundt Generating Station — a coal and natural gas power plant near Tucson, operated by Tucson Electric Power — will derive 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 600 homes, from AREVA’s solar steam technology. That technology, officially known as Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR), involves placing angled mirrors in the desert to reflect sunlight and concentrate it on a turbine filled with liquid to generate steam, from which electricity is derived. The electricity would be used to assist the H. Wilson Sundt plant during peak load times.

But the Tucson project is just the beginning of what AREVA envisions it can do on a global scale for solar steam.

“There are several other potential plants in the U.S. where this kind of hybrid approach would make sense,” said Jayesh Goyal, AREVA’s VP of North American sales, in a phone interview with TPM.

“We’re also seeing business opportunities on a global scale, at plants across the world. We already have projects being worked on in India, Australia and South Africa. The potential is huge. There are over 100 plants where this could be done today.”

Of course, it’s worth pointing out — and AREVA readily admits — that it has only recently gotten into the solar steam game, having acquired American solar startup Ausra in February 2010. It was Ausra that developed the CLFR technology that AREVA is now peddling around the world.

“Solar is a capital intensive industry,” Goyal said, “To be able to have success in this space you cannot do it alone as a startup.”

Further, Goyal noted that the CLFR technology it acquired along with Ausra is a perfect fit for the nuclear giant, given the fact that the nuclear fission process itself generates electricity by first using nuclear reactions to heat up and drive steam turbines.

“We have expertise in steam management,” Goyal explained, “We understand steam, we know steam, we know it is a good fit for this type of utility implementation — to get more electricity output from existing fossil fuel plants by combining solar energy.”

Goyal also brushed off the shortcomings of his company’s technology that were observed by leading alternative energy publication Greentech Media. One shortcoming being that solar steam, also called concentrated solar power, or CSP, requires lots of land area to spread out mirrors. Also, Google — the search engine company — attempted to devise its own solar steam conversion generator and gave up, shuttering that program after apparently finding it too capital intensive.

Goyal takes issue with the characterization that all CSP technologies are necessarily land hogs.

“We’re highly land efficient,” Goyal said, “Especially considering our technology, as opposed to other, more traditional solar panels, uses standard components — glass, steel, and the construction occurs on site.”

Indeed, the leading type of solar energy in the world and the kind most outside of the industry are familiar with is called photovoltaic solar power. That relies on growing crystalline cells to produce the panels, which must occur at other facilities. The market is currently pretty much owned by China, which has managed to produce panels at markedly less cost than the rest of the world through subsidies and manufacturing concentration, sparking what may likely be a trade war with the U.S.

Indeed, speaking of markets, Goyal is dead-set on his assertion that AREVA’s solar steam hybrid plants also help local labor markets, precisely because such construction occurs on site.

“The Tucson plant is fairly small, though,” Goyal admitted, “There will likely be 50 or so jobs created during construction.”

As for why AREVA can succeed where Google failed, Goyal’s answer was simple:

“I don’t want to speculate,” he told TPM, “But I don’t think it was their core business. Energy is our core business. We have a proven track record. And we see CSP as a better long-term solution than short-term as well.”


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