Article originally published in RenewEconomy, authored by Sophie Vorrath. 

Australian concentrating solar thermal developer Vast Solar has unveiled plans to establish a “CSP gigafactory” to manufacture its heliostats and solar receivers on Australian soil, after a successful trial at a pilot plant.

The company – which is hoping to develop a 30MW CSP plant with 12 hours of storage near Port Augusta in South Australia – says it has successfully manufactured its technology at a prototype facility in Goodna, Queensland.

Vast Solar says these proven components will be manufactured for commercial deployment by an advanced automated manufacturing plant in Australia, developed in partnership with unnamed auto-industry manufacturing firms.

CEO Craig Wood says the company is currently in discussions with state and federal governments and investors to identify a suitable location for the manufacturing plant, which would be scaled up to become “the world’s first CSP Gigafactory.”

“CSP is an industry in which Australia genuinely has the potential to be a world leader, and getting manufacturing up and running will ensure we don’t lose out to overseas competitors who are rapidly developing their CSP capabilities,” Wood said in a statement.

“Our CSP Gigafactory is a big step forward for Vast Solar and, more importantly, Australia’s ambitions to develop a clean energy manufacturing industry.

“Our technology will be deployed in all sunny countries around the world to generate clean, low-cost, reliable energy, and we are keen to manufacturing it locally,” Wood said.

The technology

As RenewEconomy has reported, Vast Solar’s technology differs from others in the sector, in that it combines elements from the two major forms of CSP: solar towers, and parabolic troughs.

Both technologies use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays and heat up a liquid – either oil or molten sodium – which is then used to heat water, creating steam which powers a turbine. Unlike solar PV, CSP can store energy in the molten salt, and provide power when the sun is not shining.

Vast Solar’s technology uses lots of small towers, rather than one big central tower, and uses the sun to directly heat molten sodium. Wood says this makes it much more efficient and allows the molten sodium to reach a higher temperature.

The technology will be deployed at Vast Solar’s VS1 Port Augusta 30MW power plant, which in April of this year won federal government backing of up to $110 million in concessional finance.

In Queensland, the company is working up a $600 million project that will combine solar thermal with solar PV, gas peaking and battery storage to provide power to Mount Isa and the wider North West Minerals Province, which is cut off from the National Energy Market.

The the idea is that solar PV will provide power in the day, solar thermal in the night, and any gaps will be filled by backup from a battery and gas peaking plant. The project has won backing from the Queensland government-owned Stanwell Energy.

The barriers

Solar thermal technologies – a potentially crucial technology in the shift to renewables due to its promise of long-duration storage and heat for industrial applications – has had relatively low global uptake in comparison to solar PV and wind, due mostly to its higher cost.

In the US, Vast was named in a consortium of CSP companies to receive $US2.3 million from the Biden government to develop their technology to help cut emissions at big industrial sites.

The funding comes as Vast Solar eyes potential CPS projects in the US off the back of the introduction Inflation Reduction Act; wide-ranging legislation that includes incentives to help companies tackle climate change and increase investments in renewable energy.

The funding is part of $US24 million in grants awarded recently by the US Department of Energy to advance CSP technologies, which use solar energy to generate heat for electricity production and industrial processing.

Vast’s Craig Wood has described the Inflation Reduction Act as changing the game for CSP in the US.

“We expect to see rapid deployment of plants in sunny states throughout the USA, helping the country achieve its decarbonisation goals,” he said at the time of the funding announcement.