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Parabolic Trough Power Plant Market, Economic Assessment and Deployment

Parabolic trough technology is the most commercially mature, large-scale solar power technology in the world. Here's an overview of how to assess the market and economic feasibility of a parabolic trough power plant.

Parabolic trough power plant market and economic assessment includes:

For more detailed, technical information, see our publications on parabolic trough market and economic assessment.

Market Overview

The primary market for parabolic trough technology is large-scale bulk power. Because trough plants can be hybridized or can include thermal energy storage, they can provide firm capacity to utilities. Capacity factors for current parabolic trough systems under development range from 25% for solar only plants to greater than 40% for plants with thermal storage. Such plants provide firm peak to intermediate load capacity.

As the cost of thermal storage is reduced, future parabolic trough plants could yield capacity factors greater than 70%, competing directly with future baseload combined cycle plants or coal plants.

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Solar Resource Assessment and Siting

The solar resource drives the cost of a parabolic trough power plant's solar field. Therefore, it is a significant factor in the economics of a parabolic trough power plant.

Parabolic trough power plants require direct normal solar radiation or beam radiation for cost-effective operation. Thus, sites with excellent solar radiation offer more attractive levelized electricity prices.

A map of the direct normal solar resources in the United States and northern Mexico. The direct solar resource is best in the U.S. Southwest, including southern California.

Figure 1. The solar resource in the southwestern United States ranks the highest in the world.

To be feasible and cost effective, parabolic trough power plants also require relatively large tracts of nearly level open land along with other siting characteristics. NREL performed a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis of the southwestern United States to identify candidate areas for concentrating solar power. To find optimal sites with high economic potential, the GIS analysis excluded regions in urban or sensitive areas (national parks, etc.), regions with low solar resource, and regions where terrain would inhibit the cost-effective deployment of large-scale plants.

Parabolic trough power plant siting also involves other factors, including:

  • Land ownership
  • Road access
  • Local transmission infrastructure capabilities and loadings
  • State-level policies and regulations.

For the results of the GIS analysis, see NREL's concentrating solar power resource maps.

For related information, see our solar data resources for and publications on parabolic trough power plant siting.

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Technology Cost Reduction Opportunities

There's great potential for reducing the costs of parabolic trough power plants. Factors driving cost reductions for parabolic trough power plant technology include:

Figure 2 describes the projected current and anticipated future levelized cost of energy for parabolic trough systems. The current cost projection is based on an independent power producer (IPP) financed parabolic trough plant with 6 hours of thermal storage, assuming today's technology. Future cost projections assume implementation of advanced concentrator, receiver, and thermal storage designs. They also assume additional cost reductions due to plant scale-up and volume production.

A bar chart showing the projected current and anticipated future levelized cost of energy for parabolic trough systems.  The current cost projection is based on an independent power producer (IPP) financed parabolic trough plant with 6 hours of thermal storage, assuming today's technology.  Future cost projections assume implementation of advanced concentrator, receiver, and thermal storage designs. They also assume additional cost reductions due to plant scale-up and volume production.

Figure 2. Projected current and anticipated future levelized costs for parabolic trough systems.

For a more detailed description of cost reduction opportunities, see our publications on parabolic trough feasibility studies and assessments.

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Financing, Incentives and Barriers

The financing and incentives available for a parabolic trough power plant project will impact its feasibility. The fuel costs of a parabolic trough power plant need to be financed through capital investment at the beginning of a project. For most parabolic trough power plant projects, the solar field represents 50% of the total investment costs. However, once a parabolic trough power plant is constructed, the fuel—solar power—is free.

To be cost competitive, parabolic trough power plants require federal and state incentives. The Western Governors' Association Solar Task Force has recommended the following set of policies and incentives:

  • Extend the 30% federal investment tax credit and expand its use to utilities
  • Exempt them from sales and property taxes
  • Allow longer-term power purchase agreements and set equitable central solar price references
  • Encourage means for aggregating plant orders and project bids to accelerate scale-up cost reductions.

The availability of financing and/or incentives is often one of greatest barriers for parabolic trough power plant projects. Other barriers can include:

  • The need for access to transmission
  • The risk of using a relatively new technology
  • Costly and time-consuming permitting and siting of power plants.

For more information, see our publications on parabolic trough financing, incentives, and barriers.

In addition, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency features a listing of state and federal incentives for renewable energy projects.

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Economic and Environmental Benefits

A parabolic trough power plant can spur economic and environmental benefits.

A parabolic trough power plant project impacts the economy both directly and indirectly. The project directly spends dollar for materials, equipment, and wages. These dollars are then re-spent indirectly creating what's called the multiplier effect—the additional economic activity generated from an initial expenditure. For example, power plant employees spend their wages to purchase goods and services, and so on.

Ultimately, the economic benefits of a parabolic trough power plant project include:

  • Creation of jobs for both construction and operation
  • Increase in state and local tax revenues
  • Increase in gross state output.

A parabolic trough power plant also lessens dependence on fossil fuels, which provides a hedge against fossil fuel price fluctuations.

Compared to fossil-fueled power plants, parabolic trough power plants generate significantly lower levels of greenhouse gases and other emissions. For example, an NREL study shows that 4,000 megawatts of concentrating solar power in California could offset the following emissions from natural gas power plants:

  • 300 tons of nitrogen oxide
  • 180 tons of carbon monoxide
  • 7.6 million tons of carbon dioxide.

For more information, see our publications on parabolic trough economic and environmental benefits.

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Market Development and Deployment Initiatives

Several initiatives are underway to expand the market and deployment of parabolic trough technology.

The Southwest Concentrating Solar Power 1000-MW Initiative has set a goal of achieving 1,000 megawatts of concentrating solar power systems in the southwestern United States by 2010. To achieve this goal, the U.S. Department of Energy is working closely with the Western Governors' Association Clean and Diversified Energy Initiative whose goal is to develop 30,000 megawatts of new clean and diversified generation by 2015.

SolarPaces is also promoting a Concentrating Solar Power Global Market Initiative (GMI). The initiative's overall goal is to deploy 5,000 megawatts of concentrating solar power to reach cost competitiveness by 2015.

For more information, see our publications on parabolic trough research and development.

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