SPECTRUM: China Stumbles on Path to Solar Thermal Supremacy

In the final days of 2018 a 100-megawatt solar thermal generating station capable of running around-the-clock, 365-days-a-year connected to the Northwest China regional power grid. It was a race against time to commission the plant in temperatures as low as -20 celsius—and one that plant designer and builder Beijing Shouhang Resources Saving Co could not afford to lose.

“We must finish on time. Otherwise we may face a heavy financial problem,” says Chen Han, Shouhang’s director for international markets.

Shouhang was racing to beat the Chinese government’s December 31, 2018 deadline to secure a guaranteed price for the plant’s power. The deadline was part of an aggressive demonstration program launched in September 2016 to slash the cost of solar thermal power and catapult Chinese firms to the head of the global pack—much as China did with solar photovoltaics.

Alas, a little more than two years later, China has stumbled on the path to solar thermal supremacy. While Shouhang’s and two more of the program’s 20 approved projects met the deadline, four others were cancelled last year and the remaining 13 projects are in limbo.

Solar thermal plants are a potentially crucial power source for global grids as they add more wind and PV solar. Unlike their weather-dependent cousins, solar thermal plants can efficiently store heat and then raise steam for their turbine-generators at will. They can thus dispatch power when it is needed most, reducing grid reliance on conventional gas, diesel and coal-fired generators.

However, the technology is comparatively costly and thus growing slowly relative to PV and wind. The technology took a public relations hit back in 2014 when birds killed by intense solar flux at the largest U.S. plant sullied solar thermal’s eco-friendly image. China’s program has been viewed as an opportunity to put solar thermal technology back on track, but the delays and cancellations mean it will fall far short.

The government anticipated adding 5.3 gigawatts by 2022—more than has been installed to date worldwide since the technology’s debut in the 1980s. Adding six more facilities that have a shot at starting this year would bring China’s total to just 550 MW, according to the Beijing-based Du Fengli, the Alliance’s secretary general. Two years from approval to completion was too short since most projects targeted high-altitude desert regions in China’s Northwest, a region with fantastic solar resources that also experiences long, punishing winters that limit outdoor construction to as few as  months.

Du adds that many players were trying to jump into solar thermal energy without prior experience building an entire plant, let alone one of commercial scale. The three projects that met the deadline are the exceptions that prove that rule.

SUPCON Solar and nuclear power giant China General Nuclear Power eachcompleted 50-MW plants in Qinghai province late last year, and both had operated pilot plants there since as early as 2009. Their plants use different approaches: CGN’s ‘trough’ plant employs mirrors to concentrate sunlight on glass tubes, while SUPCON’s ‘power tower’ uses heliostat mirrors to focus solar energy on a central receiver.

Shouhang, meanwhile, erected its own ¥3-billion power tower plant on the southwestern edge of the Gobi Desert in Dunhuang, in Gansu province, adjacent to a 10-MW plant that it began building in 2014.

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Heliostats at Shouhang’s 100-MW solar thermal power plant in Dunhuang. Credit: Shouhang

In a bulletin announcing the 100-MW plant’s startup Shouhang likens it to, “a silver sunflower blooming on the Gobi.” A field of 11,935 heliostats—each up to 115.5-square-meters across—illuminate a 260-meter-high tower where the energy heats a mix of molten nitrate salts. Tanks hold enough hot salt to operate the plant’s steam turbine for 11 hours, enabling continuous power output with or without sunlight. 

Shouhang’s core business is heat transfer devices, so it was able to develop and manufacture the bulk of the plant’s solar equipment in-house, according to Chen. The firm also learned a lot from operating the pilot plant. “We have very complete experience,” he says.

Chen says the new plant is completing tests mandated by grid operator State Grid Corp. of China before it can enter regular operation. He says that so far no one has observed dead birds around the tower. That’s as expected, he says, since the site is not frequented by many birds and is not along a migratory bird flyway.

Shouhang helped build CGN’s plant and is under contract to build others. It has also taken over another 100-MW power tower project in Gansu whose developer backed out last year. But Chen says those opportunities are on hold because the power price for further plants has not been set. Such uncertainty makes it difficult to secure financing for future projects.

Du at the Alliance says the rates will be less than the ¥1.15 ($0.17) per kilowatt-hour secured by the first three projects. She says officials have indicated they will be ¥1.14 for plants completed this year and ¥1.10 for those starting up in 2020 and 2021, but the government has yet to put those prices in writing.

Much hangs in the balance as China’s solar thermal developers struggle to sustain the anticipated build-out. Recent modeling from Beijing-based Tsinghua University suggests that solar thermal power plants can slash the cost of managing variable wind and solar power. For example, they found that replacing 5-20 percent of Gansu’s planned wind and solar PV generation with solar thermal plants would provide flexibility worth 24-30 cents per kilowatt-hour to China’s State Grid—a benefit well above the tariff that Shouhang raced to secure.

At the same time, some top solar researchers are warning that Chinese developers promising big cost cuts could pose a risk to the sector. Exhibit A, they say, is a record low 7.3 cent/kwh bid for power from a big plant in Dubai to be engineered and built by power equipment giant Shanghai Electric. “Something is nonstandard in that bid,” cautions Johan Lilliestam, a professor of renewable energy policy at the Swiss government laboratory ETH Zürich in a recent publication from the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

Robert Pitz-Paal, who chairs an IEA solar thermal research program, stated in the same report that “unseasoned Chinese firms” will hurt the technology’s global standing if they can not deliver: “If they fail, this may become the coffin nail for the technology as the confidence of clients in CSP and its potential for cost reduction may be damaged strongly by Chinese suppliers.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

China’s Nuclear Power Death Watch

BNEF 2018 China LCOE chart
In China, Nuclear’s Up & Renewables are Down. Graph of levelized cost of energy from new power plants in China in US$ per MWh via Bloomberg NEF 2018.

How many times have you read an article and discovered that the label on the package didn’t match the meat? Here’s an open secret from the news biz: that story’s writer may have also cringed. Writers often don’t see the headline until it runs, and we’re not always ecstatic about the angles editors choose to hook eyeballs.

Take this headline that topped a story today on China’s nuclear power sector in Technology Review magazine:

China’s losing its taste for nuclear power. That’s bad news.

Personally I’d call China’s anti-nuclear turn “sad” rather than “bad.” But what do I know? I only wrote the story!

Whatever the headline, my article shows that the same woes killing Western nukes now confront the technology in China. As the editors’ spot-on subhed puts it: ‘Once nuclear’s strongest booster, China is growing wary about its cost and safety’.

The coming downturn is hard to recognize amid a flurry of new reactor startups, and nuclear industry players worldwide have been slow to acknowledge it. It means that China’s planners may no longer count on reactor power to wean the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter off of coal and oil. And if one big option for decarbonizing energy systems may be biting the dust, that puts more pressure on the remaining options (eg. solar panels and wind turbines) and on innovators conjuring up new options.

As for whether dropping the nuclear option is bad or sad? I’d prefer to let the readers decide. Have your own look online, or pick up Technology Review’s January 2019 Special Issue on China.

Censors Take On China’s Silent Spring Moment

Jinhua skyline 2005c
Jinhua skyline, 2005

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it.

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006.

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty.

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers.

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Continue reading “Censors Take On China’s Silent Spring Moment”

Can China Turn Carbon Capture into a Water Feature?

In an intriguing footnote to their historic climate deal this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama called for demonstration of a hitherto obscure tweak to carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology — one that could simultaneously store more carbon and reduce water consumption. Such an upgrade to CCS holds obvious attraction for China, which is the world’s top carbon polluter and also faces severe water deficits, especially in the coal-rich north and west. Obama and Xi pledged joint funding for a project that would inject 1 million tons of captured carbon dioxide deep underground, annually, and simultaneously yield approximately 1.4 million cubic meters of water. Continue reading “Can China Turn Carbon Capture into a Water Feature?”

Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal’s ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

Obama and Xi’s accord sets a new target for reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. And for the first time sets a deadline for China’s rising GHGs to peak: 2030. This is potentially strong medicine for cooperation, when seen in the context of recent disappointments for global climate policy. Continue reading “Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks”

Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas

Heavy water use, threats of tainted groundwater, and artificial earthquakes are but a sampling of the environmental side effects that have tarnished North America’s recent boom in natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing or fracking. No surprise then that in European countries such as the U.K. that are looking to frack for cheap domestic gas, the environmental protesters often arrive ahead of the drill rigs.

But countries seeking fresh gas supplies could do far worse than fracking. So say Duke University researchers who, in today’s issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change, shine a jaundiced spotlight on China’s plans to synthesize natural gas from coal. Nine synthetic gas plants recently approved by Beijing would increase the annual demand for water in the country’s arid northern regions by over 180 million metric tons, the Duke team concluded, while emissions of carbon dioxide would entirely wipe out the climate-cooling impact of China’s massive wind and solar power installations. Continue reading “Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas”

Chinese Bullet Trains’ Worrisome “Black-box” Controls

In August we brought you disquieting news that Hollysys Automation — the supplier of a control system implicated in China’s deadly bullet-train collision this summer — also provides controls for China’s nuclear reactors (which are multiplying just as fast as its high speed rail lines). The Hollysys story now looks darker after informed speculation reported in the Wall Street Journal that the company may not fully comprehend how the control systems work. Continue reading “Chinese Bullet Trains’ Worrisome “Black-box” Controls”