Solar Conversion of Brown Coal
Interview with Keith Lovegrove, Head – Solar Thermal, IT Power

BCIA recently commissioned IT Power (Australia) to undertake a report on the ‘Solar Conversion of Brown Coal’ for its members.

We caught up with IT Power, Project Manager and Head - Solar Thermal, Keith Lovegrove, and asked him some questions about the report.

Q. Given the apparent divide in Australia between proponents of low-emissions fossil fuels and those advocating for renewable technologies, were you surprised when BCIA asked you to prepare this report?

In the policy arena there seems to be a big divide between the proponents of fossil fuel and renewable energy technologies. Whilst my background is very much on the renewables side, I see that there is actually a lot more common ground than is commonly acknowledged.

Indeed one could say that all of us trying to develop newer and cleaner technological approaches could be grouped together. We all face the challenge of convincing those who control the investments in the incumbent technologies and practices, that change is desirable and necessary for long term competitiveness.

In a pure technical sense, high temperature solar thermal processes have a lot more in common with thermal processes operated by fossil fuels than they do with many other renewable energy approaches. With the Australian economy as strongly tied to conventional fossil fuel production as it is, sensible transition trajectories to future clean energy mixes need to be considered.

The motivation for considering solar conversion of coal is to look for a synergistic combination that delivers “more than the sum of its parts” and at the same time may be an ideal part of a sensible transition strategy.

Q. If solar fuels are a potential for the future, what are the challenges for their development today?

Whilst much of the energy debate in Australia and around the world focusses on electricity, it should be remembered that oil is still the source of 30 per cent of the world’s primary energy and is responsible for around 70 per cent of energy related cash flow.

The IEA tells us that the historically high price of oil is likely to stabilise and grow slowly rather than drop again. As well as being the incumbent, a combustible liquid is a very convenient and energy dense way of handling energy for trade and for transport. Solar concentrator systems that are easily capable of producing temperatures up to 1000°C and beyond, have the potential to produce solar fuels directly by thermochemical processes much more efficiently than if electricity is produced first and applied to electrolysis of water.

However thermal splitting of water, whilst proven, is complex and represents a major engineering and development challenge. On the other hand, solar thermochemical processing of an existing hydrocarbon is technically easier.

Solar concentrators for solar thermal power systems are now a well-established industry with around 2.5GWe installed globally and continued deployment at around 40 per cent per annum growth. Approaches to conversion of coal to gas and liquids are also very well established although still a niche industry.

At face value, combining the two is not that daunting. It does however require considerable engineering development and investment. Australia with world’s best solar resources, large coal reserves and an economic dependence on primary energy export would be an ideal beneficiary of such a technology. Maybe our biggest challenge is - do we dare to lead?

Q. Given that there seem to be opportunities in this area, what do you see as the next steps?

This BCIA scoping study aimed to answer the question “Could solar driven coal conversion make any sense at all?” Both technical and economic aspects were considered. At a level of almost “back of the envelope” initial analysis, the answer is a resounding yes – and this most definitely deserves further investigation.

We identified a number of potential paths to conversion, with the production of oil products seen as the most prospective end product. Options included high and low temperature gasification followed by Fischer Tropsch liquids production or Methanol synthesis, as well as the possibility of direct solar driven coal to liquids. Any of the solar concentrator types (Tower, Trough, Dish or Linear Fresnel) could potentially be applied.

The most logical next step would be a more detailed techno-economic feasibility study to take the analysis of both reaction processes and economics to the next level of accuracy to see which of these possibilities seems most promising. From there pilot scale projects to test preferred processes under actual solar conditions would be suggested.

A key ingredient for moving forward in this area is establishing the appropriate commercial / research partnerships that bring together existing expertise on solar concentrator production and coal conversion.

The ‘Solar Conversion of Brown Coal’ report was a commissioned report for BCIA members and is available from the BCIA Members’ web portal. If you would like to find out more about BCIA’s membership packages, visit the Membership page on the BCIA website.

Dr Keith Lovegrove is the Head – Solar Thermal for the UK based renewable energy consulting company IT Power.

He has 25 years of experience in Solar Thermal Energy research combined
with 15 years of teaching experience in undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Energy Systems and Systems Engineering.

He was previously the leader of the Solar Thermal Group at the Australian National University. In that role he was the lead inventor and design and construction team leader of the 500m2 (world’s largest) Generation II Big Dish solar concentrator, recognized with a Light Weight Structures Association of Australia, 2009 design award and a 2011 citation from the Institute of Engineers Australia ACT Engineering Excellence awards.

Dr Lovegrove has had a long involvement with The ANZ Solar Energy Society, a section of the International Solar Energy Society, serving as Chair, Vice Chair, Treasurer and Chair of the 2006 conference committee.

He has represented Australia as IEA Solar PACES Solar Chemistry task representative over many years. In 2012, he was a Member of the Australian Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, Expert Working Group on Climate Energy and Water Links and a member of the ACT Climate Change Business Academic Roundtable. During 2007, advised the Australian federal “Office of Chief Scientist” on a Solar Thermal Power briefing to the Prime Minister and in 2002, was a member of the Australian federal government’s Renewable Energy Industry Implementation Group.

Dr Keith Lovegrove
Head - Solar Thermal, IT Power
Phone: + 61(0)409 777 245
Web: www.itpau.com.au and http://www.itpower.co.uk/

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