SENER foresees availability of new large CSP capacity in the US

Interview with José C Martín, CEO, SENER Engineering and Systems, Inc.

SENER, an engineering, consultancy and systems integration company, recently opened a new office in San Francisco as part of its internationalisation process.
The company is planning to coordinate projects all over the US from the new HQ, particularly ones related to the thermosolar energy field, for the implementation of turnkey engineering and construction projects for concentration solar energy plants.
On the initiative, José C Martín, CEO, SENER Engineering and Systems, Inc. told "We have established our new company here because we are convinced that the USA is the next country to develop a new large CSP capacity, far larger eventually than the one in Spain; the country and the different States seem to be convinced of the need to minimise the use of fossil fuels."
"And SENER can offer here the technology and the experience we are developing with our plants in Spain: very unique technologies, in some cases, like the large capacity thermal storage, and within the frame of an bankable EPC contract, that will facilitate limited recourse financing," said Martín, is scheduled to speak during CSPToday's second CSP Summit US scheduled to take place in San Francisco on 30th September – 1st October this year.
In an interview with, Martín spoke about operations in the US, challenges when it comes to designing and deployment of CSP systems and much more. Excerpts: SENER has been testing the solar market in the US for some time, and the new office therefore starts off with a big potential work portfolio. Can you provide an insight into the same? What according to you are the major trends and issues when it comes to progress of CSP in the US?
José C Martín: We are not in the position at this point of time to disclose our business opportunities, but our chances, parallel to those of our potential customers, are tied to the feasibility of the development of new projects.
Solar Power is far more expensive to generate than fossil fired power and also requires long and expensive development efforts. That means that unless a stable regulatory frame, with a sufficient level of economical support, is offered to the investors, the industry will not be given the opportunity to demonstrate that the initially higher costs can be reduced trough a combination of market size, technology improvements and competition among the suppliers. What according to you are the major challenges when it comes to designing and deployment of CSP systems in this market? What trends have you witnessed as far as the approach of various states for identifying and evaluating renewable energy zones within their respective region and designing transmission facilities is concerned?
José C Martín: Transmission is a key issue.  Cost of ground, water availability and other environmental issues are important, but, as everywhere else, transport capacity is of paramount importance.  Specially in the USA, with an electrical grid not as developed as, for instance in Europe, and with very long distances between "solar sites" and consumption centers. How do you think various states are going about generation of renewable power especially CSP?
José C Martín: As in many other aspects of life, there is not a 100 percent exclusive solution. Engineering is the art of finding the equilibrium among many, sometimes, contradictory alternatives.  The utility scale CSP offers the advantages of the economy of scale and higher efficiencies, in exchange of having to be developed in sometimes remote sites. And small is beautiful, but, frequently, expensive.  However, the massive deployment of rooftop generation might end up compensating some of the drawbacks. The incentives, which provide a federal tax credit for renewable-energy investment, are set to expire at the end of 2008. And it is being said that the impact is already being felt. Also, experts say there are long-term effects of a continued on again-off again renewable-energy policy. How do you see the situation shaping up as far as the growth of the sector is concerned?
José C Martín: Only a stable regulation can encourage investors to develop this kind of high cost, long term projects. As happened in Spain, until the right level of feed-in tariffs were offered, uncertainties in the regulatory frame will refrain investors from really launching their projects. There are companies, which are focusing on setting up relatively large photovoltaic solar plants and  "hybrid" energy center, coupling solar thermal technology with existing combined-cycle generation unit. How do you view such developments from the industry's perspective?
José C Martín: I am not that familiar with the photovoltaic technology. Certainly, larger photovoltaic facilities will tend to be more economic than the smaller ones.  But, as it happens with the solar field in a CST plant, the PV plant is basically modular, so that no large economy of scale can be expected.  With respect to the combination of a CST field with an existing steam turbine system (either CCTG or Rankine cycle), different solutions can be applied and the analysis of the potential alternatives is very complex. 
The solar heat can be applied in very different modes to an existing plant and a deep analysis of the off-design performance of the different equipment is required to find put the best solution, that will not be the same one for every plant.  Optimising the size of the field (and thermal storage) for such an application may be even more complex than for a green-field one. And the economy of this kind of application is not clear - you save part of the development effort and the investment in the power island, but by using an existing power block, not optimised for the solar application and most probably with lower efficiency in the use of the solar heat. How would you compare Spanish market vis-à-vis opportunities in some areas like California and Arizona in the US for CSP market? What according to you are similar and differential factors for CSP growth in these markets?
José C Martín: The factors driving the market development here and in Spain are very different besides the common target of avoiding the use of fossil fuels. The impressive development of the market in Spain is being driven by the feed-in tariff scheme. 
This regulation provides for a clear, stable framework, with a level of income that makes projects feasible.  In the US, however, the lower electricity market prices are hardly compensated by the combination of the economic incentives (ITC's and accelerated depreciation), the higher solar radiation (leading to better utilisation factors) and the possibility of building larger units here (the economy of scale, do not apply but to the power island, only a fraction of the total investment). Permitting processes seem to be some more complex here and the transport infrastructure is less adequate. All this results in probably longer and more expensive development efforts. What's on your agenda for the future?
José C Martín: The future is very close. SENER has just started the ground works for the first commercial plant using its molten salt central receiver technology in Spain. The plant, Gema Solar, will have a capacity of just 17 MW, but trough the 15 hrs thermal storage will reach a capacity factor of well above 70 percent.  It will be the first step towards the development of larger central receiver units, with lower generating cost than parabolic trough plants, due to the much higher steam temperatures and larger thermal storage capacities. Other different developments in the areas of trough and thermal storage technologies will follow.
CSPToday's second CSP Summit US
José C Martín, CEO, SENER Engineering and Systems, Inc. is scheduled to speak during CSPToday's second CSP Summit US scheduled to take place in San Francisco on 30th September – 1st October this year.
For more info, click here:
Sara Lloyd-Jones
Conference Director
CSP Today
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