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Concentrating solar power plants: innovation and decarbonization potential

If you are following new and changing technologies with potential to help achieve large-scale energy transition, you are likely to know something about concentrating solar power plants, or CSP. There are towers and troughs, design and configuration variations, all using mirrors of different sorts to reflect sunlight that heats a receiving fluid to a high temperature. Then this thermal energy can be used to generate power.

Next gen CSP

There is significant innovation in this space. John King, co-founder and CEO of Hyperlight Energy, recently joined Clean Power Hour host Tim Montague to talk about his company’s CSP Technology and applications, which can be used to spin a turbine, power an engine, or generate electricity day or night – before or after it is stored in the ground.

In this case, it isn’t just the technology that could be enormously impactful, it’s the unique market niche the San Diego company is addressing.

“We are going to actually do decarbonization of oil production, with simultaneous renewable electricity production. Nobody's done that before,” according to John.

Hyperlight Energy just signed a heat purchase agreement for a six megawatt thermal project in Bakersfield, California. The CEO explains the project and the breadth of related market and climate opportunities.

In heavy oil production, natural gas is burned to make steam. Injector wells heat up the formations to get the oil, so it flows to the surface. It's more carbon intensive than conventional oil.

“We are using concentrated solar power with our technology platform to make that steam and displace the natural gas. So (in the Bakersfield project) we're just very simply reducing carbon intensity of existing oil production,” says John.

What is the economic opportunity?

Decarbonizing the oil industry isn’t a small thing. But the economics have been challenging, notes Tim.

A major advantage of CSP is that you can store the thermal energy, then utilize it when the sun goes down, as opposed to with traditional PV.

“If it's thermal, in some cases, you're storing energy in the equivalent of rocks. And so compare the cost of rocks to batteries,” John explains. “Some people say it’s literally dirt cheap to store thermal energy, because you're literally using dirt.”

He then had a thought while visiting oil projects to talk about his company’s technology. They’re putting all this solar heat down there, but what’s coming up is only about five percent oil. Where's the heat going?

“What we're doing is making gigantic, synthetic geothermal reservoirs with sunlight, which is very literally storing sunlight in the rock, at massive, massive, massive scale,” he explains. “There's geothermal power plants that use this kind of quality heat and they do power generation. And if the rock is hot, we can use this as solar with an on/off switch, right?”

So the company is piloting this power production piece at the same site in Bakersfield. “My hope, and my dream is that it’s just the first step . . . that we are able to scale that up and get to the point where we no longer need to be co-located at the oil sites,” says John. “And so then we have solar with a switch, because the massive geological storage of the solar heat, you bring it to the surface and make power anytime day or night. So that's the dream.”

Listen to the entire Clean Energy podcast here: in which host Tim Montague and guest John King of Hyperlight Energy talk more about CSP, including a few “special sauce” hold-backs associated with geological energy storage.

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