US CSP supply chain gains traction

CSP Today speaks to Flabeg’s Kenneth Cheah about US CSP supply chain development and where improvements could be made.

By Francesca Boothby

The US is drawing abreast with Spain in terms of installed concentrated solar power capacity, but do the characteristics of the region and the current fragmented supply chain lend themselves to the success of the fledgling CSP sector?

Both historically and currently, concentrated solar power (CSP) plants in the US are characterised by their large scale. The capital intensive plants require significant amounts of upfront investment and have required support in the form of loan guarantees or grants.

Unlike the dedicated PV supply chain, (for which the main requirement are the panels), CSP’s fragmented supply chain and highly specialised components make it vulnerable to bottle necks. The assembly of reflectors, receivers and collector frames, high temperature-high pressure tubes, valves and turbines, makes component cost reduction and provision critical if these massive projects are to be financially viable.

Cost reductions

One leading major supplier to plants in the US is Flabeg, provider of glass mirror technology to some of the original pioneering CSP plants in the US. Dr Kenneth Cheah, Flabeg’s Vice President for Commercial Solar Technology, describes the state of the US supply chain as well established. He says there is sufficient capacity to meet current and future CSP demand. Essentially the underlying expertise and industry are already in place.

However, reducing the overall cost of CSP remains a paramount concern for the sector, in order to streamline projects and increase their competitiveness, he notes.

In the past, Flabeg has played a leading role in reducing the price of glass mirror reflectors. Two years ago, notes Dr Cheah, the company realised this “simply was not enough”. Flabeg embarked on the ‘Ultimate Trough’ project, designing a parabolic trough 25% more cost effective than any other on the market and resulting in lower LCOE.

Another initiative Flabeg is keen to promote is the concept of consolidated services. By assembling a team able to provide a range of engineering services such as solar field design, performance simulation and EPC management, costs are once again saved. Although this concept is specific to the glass mirror technologies that Flabeg produces, Dr Cheah observes that the initiative had been well received by customers and expects “many players follow us towards this model worldwide”.

Going local

The importance of establishing a local supply chain in any market cannot be underestimated. Indigenous expertise reduces costs, increases communication and simplifies logistics. Local manufacturing, however, requires long-term plant operation assurance; and companies won’t build local facilities if they think it is not worth it long term. There is also the issue of training local manpower.

The US currently has a long lead time of up to three years for CSP projects. Elevated permit costs for CSP projects has resulted in many projects never seeing the light of day. Consequently, suppliers are not keen to install manufacturing capacity given the real possibility that many projects may never go ahead, as has been the case in the US over the last two years.

Stimulating domestic manufacturing of solar components also requires carefully constructed support policies.The US is in contrast with regions such as China and MENA where governments are more focused on the CSP market and projects take less time to develop.

In this respect, Dr Cheah says the US CSP industry needs “more support on a state and federal level”. He motions to a perceived conflict between utilities focusing on lowest short-term costs and  the benefits of CSP in terms of “storage, dispatchability and proven long term reliability”.

As the US market for CSP progresses it is essential that those providing the components for these mammoth projects collaborate with developers to discuss the best ways in which to create cost effective supply chains. There are many opportunities to be had for those that are quick enough to realise them.

Take Flabeg for example, which leveraged its experience in producing CSP mirrors to respond rising demand for CPV mirrors in the US. The company has now established itself as the leading mirror supplier for yet another renewable energy source, cornering a niche in the US supply chain.

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