The feasibility of concentrated solar power (CSP) as a realistic, cost-effective and clean alternative to fossil fuels is set to be given a major boost with the launch of a pilot CSP facility at Stellenbosch University (SU), demonstrating a new solar collector system.
Powerful pilot facility opens soon
Situated at Mariendahl, an experimental farm of SU, the Helio100 pilot facility will be officially opened at the end of September. The Helio100 technology is designed for CSP plants as small as 100kW – enough power to provide electricity for about 30 South African households.
Sponsored by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), Helio100 is being developed by the Solar Thermal Energy Research Group (STERG) at SU – the first university research group in the country to focus on solar thermal energy research. The project is hosted in the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) in SU's Faculty of Engineering.
What is Helio100?
"Helio100 consists of a field of tracking mirrors called heliostats and a small tower that captures concentrated sunlight capable of running a turbine at 1 000°C," explains Paul Gauche, a senior researcher at SU and founding director of STERG. Air is heated which drives a gas turbine similar to that found in jet engines. This means that no water or other working fluids are needed.
"The real hindrance worldwide to the technology really taking off is that it needs to be done at low cost – something we believe we have the solution for."
In early 2014, the STERG team won a grant from the TIA to showcase the technology in the 100kW pilot facility. The technology takes a simple and fresh approach to overcome the current challenges in heliostat fields.
- Helio100 can be installed almost anywhere.
- Installation does not require highly skilled labour, ground preparation or a large workforce.
- It can be set up by only two people.
- The pilot version already generates enough electricity to power 30 households.
- Production is low-cost and cheaper than using diesel, the most commonly used back-up during power outages.
- Much more energy for day and night use, regardless of the weather, can be stored.
- Environmentally friendly and adaptable for small to large-scale operations.
- A powerful addition to current renewable energy solutions.
Simple, adaptable, quick and cheap!
"We managed to do this by using a holistic approach that included ignoring what people said could not be done. The unique design uses smaller, smarter and modular heliostats to overcome the cost challenges," says Gauche. "The heliostats also don't need any ground or civil preparation which automatically provides a natural dust suppression mechanism. We use the terms 'plonkable' heliostats and 'plonkability'."
Multiple useful, cost-effective and economy-boosting features
Concentrated solar power (CSP) – especially via Helio100 – is able to provide clean electricity when it is needed, from resident use to large utility scale, with the added benefit of boosting the local economy by sourcing components from local suppliers and manufacturers. Modular heliostat fields can be manufactured and installed by as few as two people and by duplicating this, modular generating units can be connected into larger power plants, mostly using local resources.
Energy for the future
"This research breakthrough ties in with the vision of Stellenbosch University to be inclusive, innovative and future-focused," says Prof Wikus van Niekerk, CRSES Director. "Developing a CSP industry in South Africa has the potential to help resolve the challenges around sustainable energy supply. It can be similar to the commercially successful development of the Fischer Tropsch technology by Sasol that the company is now seen to be world leaders in. The Helio100 project can be seen as a significant step in this development pathway for South Africa."
The construction of the pilot facility will be completed by September 2015 and will be unveiled to the CSP world at SolarPACES, the leading international CSP conference.
Stellenbosch University boasts more than 40 years of research on renewable energy, spearheaded by CRSES and STERG.