CSIRO-customised heliostats set to bring cheaper, cleaner energy to remote regions

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Small, low-cost heliostats: CSIRO's Energy Flagship is developing new, innovative heliostats optimised for use in remote and regional Australia.
CSIRO's Energy Flagship is developing new, innovative heliostats optimised for use in remote and regional Australia.
Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA)

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s Research and Development Program has committed a million dollars to a $2,158,071 solar energy project to develop a heliostat optimised for deployment in regional and remote areas of Australia.

The project, located in Newcastle, NSW, is being helmed by the CSIRO Energy Flagship in collaboration with Diver Consolidated Industries and RioGlass Solar.

What is a heliostat?

A heliostat, equipment used to harness the sun’s energy, incorporates a mirror that moves in accordance with the sun so as to reflect light continuously towards a fixed target.

”Solar-thermal tower technology uses many mirrors (heliostats) that accurately track the sun, reflecting light towards a receiver on top of a tower which heats a fluid,” explains the CSIRO’s Energy Flagship. “The heated fluid is then used to drive a turbine for generating electricity.”

Why develop a remote-location heliostat?

Regional and remote areas of Australia are particularly well suited to the deployment of central receiver solar energy systems, says ARENA.

Many remote locations across Australia experience “high-quality solar resource” – read, plenty of high-intensity sunshine. Moreover, most remote areas currently depend on expensive generators, and demand for affordable energy in the bush is growing.

However, high labour costs, lengthy distances from supply hubs and the extreme site conditions experienced in many of Australia’s remote areas present particular challenges for those designing, installing and operating these systems.

“CSIRO plans to leverage its solar thermal know-how to design an heliostat mirror and control system that would enable cost-effective deployment of central-tower solar thermal installations, potentially opening a new domestic market,” said ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht at the launch of the project in August 2014.

How will the new heliostat differ from the CSIRO's existing heliostats?

The design, installation logistics and maintenance systems of the new heliostat are being optimised specifically for use in regional and remote areas of Australia.

The current project is building on existing knowledge the CI Energy Flagship team developed overseeing the design and construction of a brace of high-temperature research towers in Newcastle that deployed its existing high-precision heliostats.

The new heliostats will be manufactured offsite to save on high remote-region labour costs. CSIRO is applying automotive-style mass manufacturing methods to the new design and is optimising it for freighting from manufacturing centres to anywhere in Australia.

The remote-region heliostats will have few or no machine parts so will not be susceptible to wear and corrosion. They will be run by a novel direct-drive electric motor, minimising the need for maintenance visits.

The project team is developing an advanced control system that will enable the new heliostats to reflect sunlight precisely regardless of the accuracy (or otherwise) of the installation, and that will eliminate the need for initial and ongoing calibration. “This will make the site ground conditions less important, speeding up project deployments,” states ARENA.

The researchers are also exploring “several advanced concepts in heliostat design” to ascertain their suitabiilty for application in remote areas of Australia.

What's the payoff?

According to ARENA, “the new heliostats should “significantly reduce the cost and risk associated with deploying central receiver systems to regional and remote areas of Australia”.

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