Gemasol: the energy of the future…already on the market in Spain

 fossil fuels, solar panels, energy production

Photo © Novartis AG

Opened on October 4th 2011 by Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the Gemasol CSP* (concentrating solar power) power station at Fuente de Andalucia, Spain, may well foreshadow the future of energy.

The principle is simple, for a nonetheless huge power station. A total of 2,650 mirrors reflect the sunlight towards a 140-metre high tower that contains liquid salt. The effect of the mirrors makes the tower heat up, reaching temperatures in excess of 500 degrees Celsius. The tower is then cooled, which results in the forming of vapour, which in turn drives turbines, which then generate electricity.

The principle is simple up until this point, and does not appear to stand out from what already exists. However, the liquid salt not only enables extremely high temperatures to be reached, but the heat to be stored over a long period. In fact, once the salt has been heated up, it enables the Gemasol power station to operate independently for around fifteen hours, with no exposure to sunlight. Night-time, or periods of cloudy weather therefore no longer restrict the generation of power that is still solar. The constant generation of energy enables excessive fluctuations in the network supply to be avoided.

The energy generated by the power station, which is expected to be 110 GWh per year, would amount to burn 89,000 tonnes of lignite or 217,000 barrels of oil per year in equivalent power stations that use these fossils fuels. There is a dual saving: first, the 304,750 m2 of reflective panels only need sun to fulfil their task, and second, this amounts to 30,000 tonnes of CO2 that are not emitted into the atmosphere every year. This should appeal to the 27,500 households in Southern Spain whose electricity already comes from the Fuente de Andalucia power station.

The power station, where building was completed in 2010, managed its best performance in June 2011 following several days of exceptional solar radiation, although it was only running at 63% capacity at the time.

Gemasol, which is a trend-setting clean and sustainable energy project, is managed by Torresol (“the Sun Tower”), which is in turn 60% owned by the SENER* and 40% by the MASDAR, an investor specialized in the energy sector.  The cost of the power station, which is estimated at 171 million euros, was primarily financed by the European Investment Bank, which contributed 80 million euros. The aim now is to succeed in disseminating this technology, in order to lower the cost of generating this “green” energy. Although there is no financial saving as yet, everything leads us to believe that Spain will be able to make these innovations bear fruit. In 2009, so-called sustainable energy amounted to 12.5% of the energy consumed in the country, and is expected to amount to 20% in 2020.

So, can we talk about future? The power station won the 2011 Technological Innovation Award, a prize awarded by CSP Today, the international standard-setter. It also won the Red Ribbon Award for its managing company, Torresol, at the European Business Awards. This is a fine set of trophies for an energy that is still young, and far from having demonstrated its full potential.

Photo © Novartis AG

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