Can Fossil Fuels Get Better With Solar Thermal?

kimberlinaphoto1Can the fossil fuel industry benefit from clean power? It’s a question that Palo Alto, Calif.’s Electric Power Research Institute is trying to answer — the non-profit group is heading up research that will examine whether taking steam from solar thermal projects and adding them to conventional fossil fuel power plants can help reduce fuel costs and plant emissions.

EPRI, which is funded by the electric utility industry, will use the projects to determine what if any, are the economic and environmental benefits of adding solar thermal to fossil fuel power plants. Power producers and utilities need to reduce their emissions with renewable energy in order to meet to federal and state mandates. The RPS in some states includes a call for a specific percentage of solar in the mix, and EPRI believes solar thermal could be used to boost coal or natural gas power in existing plants, eliminating the need to build new infrastructure.

Hopefully this technology wouldn’t encourage power producers that were planning on investing in new clean power plants to switch to just greening up their current dirty plants. But adding in any bit of clean power is still a step in the right direction.

ERPI plans to work on the solar thermal studies with Houston-based Dynegy (s DYN) and Reno, Nev.’s NV Energy, the main operating unit of Sierra Pacific Resources (s SRP). Also participating in the research are Arizona’s Salt River Project, Atlanta-based Southern Co. (s SO) and Raleigh, N.C.’s Progress Energy (s PGN).

The solar thermal studies for natural gas and coal plants will be conducted in parallel, with the natural gas case studies going on at Dynegy’s Griffith Energy Facility in Kingman, Ariz., and at NV Energy’s Chuck Lenzie Generating Station near Las Vegas. The locations for the coal plant studies have not yet been disclosed.

The hybrid solar thermal-fossil fuel system is the latest in a long line of concepts that could be used to clean up traditional power plants. Other companies like solar thermal startup Ausra are selling solar-powered steam-generating technology for the purpose of enhanced oil recovery.

Capturing the carbon emissions from coal plants is the most well-known example of adding on an innovative technology but keeping the fossil fuel infrastructure intact. But carbon capture and storage is prohibitively expensive. Plans in the U.S. for a big carbon capture and storage pilot plant were dropped by the Department of Energy after costs spiraled upward, with the DOE now planning to fund a number of smaller test projects around the country.

Image courtesy of Ausra.