Solar thermal costs

Table 13.2 lists costs for solar thermal power plants estimated by the Sandia National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, both run under the auspices of the US Department of Energy.

Table 13.2 Solar thermal costs

Capital cost ($/kW)

O & M costs($/kW)

Levelised energy

Cost ($/kWh)

2000 2010

Solar trough



0.11 0.09

Solar tower



0.09 0.05

Solar dish



0.13 0.06

Note: The levelised energy cost is for private financing. Source: US Department of Energy.

Note: The levelised energy cost is for private financing. Source: US Department of Energy.

The only one of the three technologies listed that is operating in a commercial environment is the solar trough technology, exemplified by the nine plants built during the late 1980s and early 1990s in California. Operational costs have fallen at these plants in recent years and performance has increased so they may well be generating electricity at around $0.11-$0.12/kWh, in line with predictions in Table 13.2. This is too expensive for the technology to compete in the bulk power market in the USA but is low enough to enable it to compete in niche markets. Perhaps more importantly, it can also compete in the peak power market, which is where power from the Californian plants is sold.

The other two solar thermal technologies are currently at an earlier stage of development than solar trough technology. Consequently they are not operating under commercial conditions.

Costs for all three technologies are expected to fall. By 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that solar towers will be capable of generating power at a levelised cost of $0.05/kWh, solar dishes at $0.06/kWh and solar troughs at $0.09/kWh. These levelised prices have been estimated on the basis of projects being built by an independent power producer with private financing. Other estimates have predicted an even lower cost for solar trough power plants, perhaps as low as $0.06/kWh by the middle of the next decade.

Costs are likely to be lower still for an ISCC power plant. A World Bank assessment put the cost of a near-term ISCC plant based on solar trough technology at 1080/kW, and the generating cost at less than 0.07/kWh11. This could fall to 0.05/kWh over the longer term.

Plants such as solar trough facilities with large solar arrays could be cheaper to build in the developing world where labour costs are lower than in the developed. A100-MW solar trough plant could cost 19% less in Brazil than in the USA, for example.12

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