Tower power to cut carbon in Aussie town

November 6, 2007

solar11.JPG  In two years, an entire town in far north Queensland will be powered by the sun. The Australian state has plenty of sun — and plenty of coal.

     In fact, Queensland, a major coal user and exporter, has energy resources galore. But what’s interesting is that in the case of Cloncurry, population 4,500, the sums worked out in favour of solar power, not coal or diesel.

    The A$31 million ($28.6 mln) project, the first of its type for the state, works like this:
     The sun’s rays are tracked by thousands of mirrors, called heliostats, and the beams of intense light are concentrated at the top of 54 shortish towers containing blocks of graphite.

    The sun’s energy heats up the blocks through which water passes, creating steam that drives conventional electricity turbines.

     The 10-megawatt system works day and night because the graphite blocks retain their heat for many hours.

     The town was a natural choice. Abundant sunshine and the notoriety of recording Australia’s hottest day — 53 degrees Celsius (127 degrees Fahrenheit)  in the shade in 1889.

     An Australian company, named Lloyd Energy Systems, developed the graphite block storage and boiler system, said CEO Steve Hollis from Cooma, in New South Wales state, where a test solar tower system is about to go online after years of development (pictured below).

    Lloyd Energy is part of a consortium building the Cloncurry project and the Queensland government has chipped in A$7 million. The government said the solar power station will mean a cut of about 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent
each year for Queensland.solar2.JPG

    “The problem with a lot of these rural towns throughout Australia is that the loads are all going up as everyone gets air conditioners and the country energy authorities can’t keep the supply up to them because the lines were never ever designed for the loads that they are getting,” said Hollis.

     “So what they have been forced to do is to put in supplementary supports for the systems, which means either upgrading their networks, that is, duplication of their transmission lines, or in fact put in diesel systems.”

     For the rural energy supply authority that provides power to Cloncurry, solar worked out to be a cheaper alternative, Hollis said. That means the town’s residents won’t have to pay any more for their electricity, he added. The Queensland government said it will monitor the project before further investment. Other towns have already been identified as potential candidates for solar power stations.

    In the meantime, coal will remain king in Queensland.

    “Coal will always have a role in the state’s generation mix,” Ellen McIntyre, senior media adviser for the Office of the Minister for Mines and Energy in Brisbane.

    “Coal-fired generation currently accounts for over 80 percent of total electricity generated in Queensland. It’s hard to imagine the state’s electricity generation mix without coal, in any scenario, in the next 20 years.

    “That’s simply because we have over 32 billion tonnes of high-quality, low-cost, easily accessible black coal, sufficient to last for more than 300 years,” she added.

    The state, though, was looking at curbing its reliance on fossil fuels by developing clean-coal technology as well as renewable energy.

    While more solar power projects are planned elsewhere in Australia, the country still remains a target of criticism for refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse gas emissions. It’s bound to take many more Cloncurry projects to change that perception.

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