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Jakob Jensen's picture
Chief Commercial Officer Heliac

I am the commercial director in Heliac. Heliac produces solar-generated utility-scale heat for district heating and industrial processes up to 200C. The low-cost, scalable method enables heat...

  • Member since 2020
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  • Aug 19, 2020

Decarbonizing industrial processes running 24/7 at temperatures above the limits of heat pumps and at costs on par with natural gas is hard. Though much energy consumption can be electrified, the IEA still predicts industrial process heat to be liable for 57% of global carbon emissions by 2060.  

By integrating solar thermal solutions into the existing fossil-based heat production, utilities may be able to mitigate this scenario while meeting their customers' demand for clean and affordable heat.

In this article, I estimate 

  • the market potential for solar-generated industrial process heat in the 120⁰C-220⁰C range. Annually, industrial processes use +8,000 TWh of heat in this temperature range. 

  • the price level solar thermal solutions need to meet in order to become competitive with natural gas in each US state, in Europe, and likely in most of the rest of the world.

I very much welcome insights, comments, questions, and recommendations from the Energy Central community (to which I am brand new).

Thanks, Jakob

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 19, 2020

Thanks for sharing, Jakob. You compare solar thermal solutions to current competition in the form of natural gas-- but I'm curious if you see other emerging technologies as potential threats as well. What about hydrogen for industrial, carbon capture, or other potential innovations that might come out? Do you think solar thermal has a leg up on them because it's already advanced as far as it has?

Jakob Jensen's picture
Jakob Jensen on Aug 19, 2020

I guess there are two parts to an answer to your great question, Matt.

First, the energy market is way too big for any solution to capture it all alone. So in that sense, I do not see other innovations as fundamental threats. At least not as long as costs of solar thermal are sufficiently low.

Second, yes, I believe solar thermal has a leg up on the other solutions; Hydrogen produced from renewable power has low roundtrip efficiency; a kWh power is still factors more expensive than a kWh heat; CCS reduces the efficiency of power plants meaning you need to build more power plants and burn more coal to capture the carbon; biomass is a too limited resource to make a difference in scale; massive installations of new on- and offshore wind turbines, as well as a massive roll-out of nuclear, will likely face massive delays and obstructions from Not-In-My-Backyard opposition; and wave power is, as far as I know, decades from any really scalable solutions. 

This is not to say that I do not expect competition from other solutions. Just to emphasize that all solutions have their challenges to deal with.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 19, 2020

Thanks for the follow up, Jakob. I definitely agree that there isn't a silver bullet, and we should fill out our tool box with as many viable solutions as different challenges need. Will be interesting to see which tools are pulled out of that box and when!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 19, 2020

Jakob, though hydro and nuclear power can be (and are being) used to provide clean industrial process heat, intermittent power from the sun and wind is generally useless - for good reasons.

For example: the Topaz Solar Farm in California occupies 9 square miles of land in the central California desert. Topaz was built at a capital cost of $2.2 billion, and at 30% capacity factor, the plant is capable of delivering an average of  1.2 TWh of electricity/year.

As a rough estimate, 1 MWh of energy is required to produce 1 metric ton of Portland cement; annual production for a typical plant is 2 MT/yr. So even with the best solar panels, in the most favorable locations, powering an average cement factory would require a $3.6 billion solar farm, occupying 14.4 mi²  of land.

What company will make a $3.6 billion investment, to be repeated every 30 years; one that will place its ability to deliver product at the mercy of the weather and time of day?

That solar energy will ever be competitive with coal or gas power for industrial applications is fantasy, and I tend to think well-meaning entrepreneurs mistake demand for the perception of "green" energy, for green energy itself. While marketing one's plant as powered by "100%  clean energy" has value, an increasingly-aware public is taking an increasingly-dim view of exaggerated claims. To my knowledge no "100% clean energy" claim in the U.S. has been verified; in many cases, they've been revealed as wild exaggerations. Over the last decade the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has documented how consumers are increasingly being misled; all that's remaining is enforcement, giving rise to a real risk of liability.

Jakob Jensen's picture
Jakob Jensen on Aug 19, 2020

Thank you for your comment, Bob. It gives me an opportunity to try to be a bit more precise. 

I do not see solar thermal become the only source of energy. The way we see it in Heliac is that our solution is an add-on to the fossil-fired systems. As long as integration is inexpensive and the heat produced at costs competitive to fossil fuels, this makes sense. This is what we do already today at EON's district heating plant in Denmark, where we deliver ~20% of the annual demand, while the rest is produced with natural gas and biomass. The more inexpensive storage that becomes available, the more solar can be installed, but never 100%. 

Second, comparisons to solar for power production (CSP) is not very relevant. As long as the market price for electricity is higher than for heat, no heat users will use electricity for their heat-driven industrial processes. Also, the storage of electricity is ~20-100X more expensive than storing heat at relatively low temperatures. This makes the case even worse for companies producing 24/7.

Third, solar heat may also be used for pre-heating higher temperature processes (I've included a link to an NREL-analysis of this in my article). If you take the cement factory that needs 2 TWh per year and assume that they need 900C for their production, that solar thermal can pre-heat the limestone to 300C, that this would save them a third of their consumption (I know it's not linear, but just as an illustration), that they are placed in California paying $25/MWh, and the DNI is 2400:

  • The solar thermal production would need to be 720 GWh.
  • With DNI 2400 this would require a 300 MW solar field. 
  • 300 MW = 300 acres (at least for Heliac's solution) = 0.5 sq. mile
  • Assuming 25 years lifetime, an opex of $5/MWh, and that the heat is sold to the cement factory by a utility with a wacc of 4%, then the solar field can be sold at $780,000/MW = $234 million.

One major reason for the vast difference in your calculation compared to my calculation is that solar thermal turns ~70% of the energy from the Sun directly to heat. Power production from solar is done at 37.5% efficiency, so per 1000 W of solar irradiance, you get 1000 x 0.7 x 0.375 = 260 W power instead of 700 W of heat. Also, you need to invest in turbines and molten salt storage. 

Finally, there are a few other parameters that can be brought into play. I will discuss these in a follow-up article in a few weeks.

Thanks, Jakob


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 20, 2020

Thanks for you response, Jakob. I didn't understand that the heat energy to which you referred wouldn't be converted to electricity. I think "solar thermal" has a different connotation in the U.S., where district heating is all but non-existent, than it does in Denmark.

I'm amazed that solar is capable of producing 20% of the space heating required for a district heating system in Denmark. When I visited Copenhagen last year I noticed Danes have a larger tolerance for variations in room temperature, which may account for part of it.

With shame I freely admit America is home to one of the least energy-efficient societies in the world. Per-capita carbon emissions put us at #13, just behind the Middle Eastern caliphates and Luxembourg. It was refreshing to discover Danes are not as nuclear-adverse as Germans are; in my opinion, within 200 years nearly all electricity will be generated by nuclear power. Or if not, humans will have accepted their fate and be too busy dealing with the impacts of climate change to care how electricity is generated anymore.

Jakob Jensen's picture
Jakob Jensen on Aug 20, 2020

Thank you for your reply, Bob. Much appreciated, since you are definitely not the only one who thinks of power though we talk heat. Communication is hard. Heliac's communication would probably benefit from coining our solution 'solar heat' rather than 'solar thermal'. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Aug 21, 2020

Jakob very good article to get many thinking.  There are also many smaller jobs that thermal hot water does like home and business Solar Hot water like I have on my roof in the South west. Simple easy and the thermal hot water gets used each day and more is stiored for the next use. 

   Also Geo thermal is great since it can give home or business heat in winter and cooling in summer. The Jesuit LeMoyne college in Syracuse NY does that. 

There is also a combines cycle NG power plant that also provides heat and hot water to many hospitols near Syracuse University. What would be waste heat from the plant is cycled to the hospitols and other buiness in the very cold winter. In summer it gets warmer but not HOT and it provides all the hot water use for those buildings. Even in homes they have a Heat Pump to heat the home that also makes domestic hot water so they combine to be very efficent. 

   At the Tesla Giga factory in Sparks Neveda they use waste heat from some processes to add heat to others. This saved 80% of the energy for a few processes making it very efficient.   

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Thank Jakob for the Post!
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