Government gives $65m for Port Augusta solar thermal project – but will it work?

The on-again, off-again solar thermal power plant is seemingly now very much on, after a $65 million government grant announced by the Albanese Government this week.

The government says  the project will create an estimated 450 jobs during construction and 70 ongoing operational roles but the project has quite a tepid history.

As science journalist Clare Peddie write in Cosmos Weekly in November the original project was to be built by US company SolarReserve, however despite millions of dollars in funding, the project was abandoned in 2019 after SolarReserve failed to secure financing.

Now, a different company – Vast Solar – has taken on the project. In November, the government announced $110 million in concessional financing, and has now provided this $65 million grant.

Vast told Cosmos its project was cheaper and less risky.

If the plant gets off the ground this time, it is aiming for 30 MW in power, and 288 MWh of storage.

Read more: Solar power tower: way of the future or expensive gimmick?

“The scale of the energy transformation underway is massive – it’s great to see an Australian company developing breakthrough technology to create jobs and clean, reliable and affordable power in the regions,” Minister Chris Bowen said.

“Making this technology commercially viable on a larger scale could go a long way to meeting the growing need for dispatchable renewable energy, energy security and longer duration storage.”

Unlike regular solar panels, concentrated solar power of CSP is built by using mirrors to shine sunlight up to a tower or receiver. In the Vast Solar set up, sunlight heats mineral salts in the tower to 560 degrees Celsius, and then the heat is funnelled into a ‘heat exchange’ which boils water. At this point the steam drives a turbine, while a storage tank holds the heat for later use.

While a solar panel can only dispatch energy at the time the sun is shining, CSP allows the energy to be stored for later, for example overnight.

It’s important to note that CSP has struggled to gain traction both in Australia and overseas. Spain – which has the highest amount of CSP – hasn’t installed any new towers since 2013.

However, the grant – which has been partially funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency – is conditional. The funding will not be given unless the project reaches financial close.

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