Between Solar PV and CSP, Which Has Higher Growth Potential for Now, and in Future?

What are Solar PV and Solar CSP?

When people hear the word solar energy, what immediately come to their minds are the solar panels.

But solar panels represent only one type of energy that can be generated from sunlight – that of converting sunlight to electricity through the photovoltaic effect.

The other form of energy that can be recovered from sunlight is referred to as solar thermal, and this is simpler than solar PV. Solar thermal refers to the use of the heat of the sunlight for heating applications – water heating, industrial heating/drying etc.

A special form of solar thermal is when such heating can be used to generated superheated steam to drive a turbine to generate power again – thus solar thermal can also be used to generate power. This form of solar thermal, that uses concentrated sunlight to generate power, is termed Concentrating Solar Power, or CSP.

CSP Advantages & Disadvantages over PV

The solar PV technology and operations are relatively simpler when compared to that of solar CSP, which requires moving parts such as turbines etc., not very different from conventional power generation.

But Solar CSP offers some significant advantages over solar PV. First, solar CSP can offer much higher capacity utilization factors (could be as high as 30%), while the CUFs for solar PV are usually around 20%.

Because storing heat is cheaper than storing electricity, Solar CSP can also incorporate cost effective storage. This makes solar CSP a more suitable choice for firm, baseload power, something solar PV is not yet in a position to deliver as cost of storing electricity in batteries for large scale solar power plants is simply too high.

But even with the above advantages, solar CSP is today lagging behind solar PV in terms of installed capacities, mainly owing to the fact that solar CSP is not scalable (and thus it is difficult to have small solar CSP plants), because there are multiple solar CSP technologies and it is unclear which will be the clear winner (unlike in PV where there are just two main technologies – crystalline silicon and thin film), are finally owing to the fact that the water requirements and other infrastructural requirements of CSP make it a difficult choice for many investors compared to the far simpler solar PV power plants.

Current Status of Solar CSP

As a result of the above challenges, solar CSP is far behind solar PV in terms of capacity installed.

However, there are some bright signs for the future for CSP. Once one of the competing technologies matures and is able to achieve scale and a consequent reduction in price, and once storage technology improves to the extent that the power can provide reliable baseload power, there are indications that the CSP technology could grow as fast as the PV technology. And given that CSP technologies can also be used as hybrids in existing thermal power plants only make them more attractive for the future.

So, don’t expect solar CSP to match PV any time until 2020, but beyond that solar CSP could have much attractive growth rates depending on the technology landscape.

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