Solar thermal power could be close to a breakthrough in the US market, but only if developers can shave costs to beat back competition from photovoltaic (PV) solar systems, and attract the huge sums needed to finance the renewable energy plants.
While the new technology has been touted as a solution toward moving the United States away from its dependence on fossil fuels, it has so far stumbled because of the high price tag for the massive plants.
Solar thermal companies like Brightsource and eSolar, both of which count search giant Google Inc among their investors, and Spain’s Abengoa Solar, have technology that concentrates the sun’s rays to heat water into steam and drive a generator.
Traditional PV modules made by companies like First Solar and Suntech directly convert sunlight into electricity, and make up the largest chunk of the solar market.
Backers of solar thermal have said it would claim the lion’s share of large-scale projects in the United States, but a sharp drop in PV panel prices has drawn much of the market’s interest to that technology.