As a result of federal renewable energy tax credits and cheaper and more efficient renewable installations, development of renewable energy resources in the U.S., and in particular wind power, has boomed in the past few years. However, the historically low natural gas prices pose a hurdle to continued adoption of renewable energy supplies. These low prices also pose interesting questions: Can renewable energy replace fossil fuel-based generation? Will renewables lose the competition? Or, intriguingly, can both technologies coexist and work together for a better and cleaner future?

Fossil fuels are typically considered a competitor to solar technologies, not a partner. However, utilities in the U.S. are installing concentrated solar power technologies at their existing coal and natural gas power plants.

The Shift

The shift began with the world’s first “hybrid” solar power plant, which utility Florida Power & Light unveiled in 2011. The 75 megawatt solar thermal project, also touted as the first utility -scale solar plant in the southeast U.S., connects to an existing combined-cycle natural-gas power plant. Then in January 2012, Tucson Electric Power (TEP) announced plans to add up to five MW of solar thermal power to a coal- and natural-gas-fired plant in Arizona by early 2013.

Meanwhile, Areva Solar, which provided the solar thermal technology for the TEP project, called the Sundt Solar Boost, also started construction on a 44 MW solar project for a coal-fired power station in Australia. General Electric also built a 530 MW plant which includes solar thermal power, natural gas and wind power.

The Draw of Hybrid Projects

Hybrid projects are changing the equation. CSP technologies utilize mirrors or lenses, a compact linear Freshnel reflector, in the case of Areva Solar, to focus the sun’s heat onto receivers, where it heats water into steam. Then, steam turbines convert that steam into electricity. Conventional fossil fuel power plants create steam and use steam turbines as well to make electricity.

When new CSP projects can use existing steam turbines, interconnection and transmission from fossil fuel plants, and avoid the permitting costs and challenges of building a brand new plant, particularly on previously undeveloped land, the cost drops considerably. Adding solar enables utilities to expand a plant’s power generations without increasing its carbon emissions. This makes it easier to get an expansion approved by regulators and can also enhance utilities’ image among their customers because they are doing something to make an existing, and polluting plant greener.

Working Together is Vital for the Future

Renewable energy and fossil fuels working together as sources of electricity generation rather than as competitors on the grid is vital for the future. Places such as Texas are going to require a significant source of new generation in the immediate future. Texas is a key test market for the issue, since it also the leading producer of natural gas. Solar capacity plays a much smaller role.

Mixing both renewable energy and fossil fuels can help keep costs lower for consumers. However, wind energy isn’t always available because the wind blows mainly at night. Natural gas plants can more easily ramp up and down to complement wind output than coal or nuclear plants.

While air and water quality weren’t major concerns during the last major generation construction several decades ago, today they are. These concerns are going to weigh more heavily into decision making. This is why it is vital for renewable energy and fossil fuels to work together for a better and cleaner future.

MAS Field Services is a field service company within the energy industry eager to be a part of the ever expanding goal of American energy independence. Whether it’s title for minerals on an oil and gas or solar project, leasing large acreage for a wind farm, or obtaining right of ways for long haul transmission and pipelines, MAS can get the right people in the right place. We are excited to tap the local oil and gas reserves needed to keep our way of life moving forward, capture the overwhelming wind and solar resources on local soil needed to help power America, and tackle the challenge of bringing those resources from production to consumption. Contact us with the link below for more information!

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