Novatec Biosol AG

A solar revolution

On how many occasions have you read about society’s wishful thinking for a commercially realized green technology that is fossil fuels market-competitive? A technology that does not rely on feed-in tariff incentives, or promise financial gain—if you can wait year upon year for that return on investment? A simple and proven piece which, dare anyone say, might even be adaptable to existing plants and reinvent our energy solutions?

This notion, previously somewhat of a pipedream, can become a reality. Novatec Biosol AG, a German company, was founded to revolutionise the technology for producing Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). Novatec has cracked it.

Martin Selig, CEO at Novatec, reveals to IRJ that when fossil fuels reach US$45 per barrel, the company’s patented design for solar fields using unique linear Fresnel collector technology will provide an immediate cost advantage. We take a closer look at the inception of Novatec Biosol, the development of its turnkey solar boiler and Fresnel technology, and count down to the days when switching over to solar will be the clear way ahead all over the world.

Starting out in Spain

At just five years old this year, Novatec has accomplished a great deal. This can be attributed in no small part to the focus and continued efforts to stick to what they do best: turnkey delivery of solar power systems.

“I think this is a very unique position we have reached,” Selig says.

“We are not single component suppliers for the CSP business, but really a relevant part of any kind of EPC contractor CSP project because from us, a customer can get a turnkey boiler as the key component of any kind of CSP application out of one hand, at guaranteed performance figures.”

Since the beginning, Novatec has concentrated on realizing mass manufacturing of its competitive solar technology.

“We started our business in 2005, developing the patented Fresnel technology. Parallel to the product development we designed a mass reduction process in order to really be able to deliver the components to the solar fields in high mass,” Selig says.

“We knew that by the time we reached that point we would not have an immediate sales opportunity because the permitting times for these kind of applications are one, two or three years. Therefore, we started with project development in Spain.”

Spain presented as an obvious choice for Novatec. It was the only country to have set in stone feed-in tariffs or power purchase agreements at the time, and today remains the location for many of Novatec’s main clients. The company has developed three 30 mega watt projects in Southern Spain.

“It is our first market and definitely a very important market. We start construction of our first power plant in March, so in a couple of weeks, and we expect to receive information to start construction of one or two other projects within the next two years,” Selig says.

This first project due for commencement of construction in March, 2010, is part of a larger project which makes up a total project investment of about $150 million including financing costs. Known as PE2, it has been sold at 85 per cent construction and operation to EBL (Elektra Basel Land), a Swiss utility company. The two subsequent projects are identical to the first and situated nearby in the region of Murcia; a part of Spain which has become quite a hive of industry for Novatec.
“We have our first mass production factory now in Murcia,” Selig says.

“In order to demonstrate the efficiency of our technology we erected a small scale power plant which we call PE1, which was synchronized in March 2009. Since then it’s performed very well and helped us to demonstrate proof of technology and plant design.”

In fact, showcasing both the plant design and wider technology through PE1 proved to be a vital starting block for the company.

Proven technology and securing investment

Selig explains that Novatec’s CSP plant is the only one worldwide which is truly 100 per cent based on solar power. However, in order to understand how the company has achieved this, understanding what makes Fresnel technology different is key.

“Fresnel technology is a linear-focusing system comparable to parabolic trough, but much simpler and therefore much cheaper,” Selig explains.

“This is because it’s based on flat mirrors instead of curved mirrors, with a fixed absorber tube above the solar field. The biggest advantage, besides using flat mirrors is a fixed positioned absorber. With this we could eliminate the use of thermal oil and introduce to the market for the first time: direct steam generation in the solar field.”

This is the determining factor in Novatec’s successful application of Fresnel technology (whereas parabolic trough CSP technology is based on a thermal oil circuit—before the heat is exchanged to the steam water cycle which each turbine is based upon). Fresnel does things a little differently.

“We can leave that thermal oil and the required heat exchanges by direct steam generation principles, so this is the first commercially operating direct steam generating solar power plant,” Selig says.

Today PE1 (and soon the first 30 mega watt plant that Novatec is preparing to construct) is the only plant in the world based on air cooled condensing.
“It’s really waterless. The power plant cycle is based on zero water consumption as well as the cleaning system which is very important if you consider the discussions, for example in California, for water constraints,” Selig says.

“CSPs have had a hard time because the plants previously started on the basis of water cooled condensation-which is cheaper for investment and increases the power plant efficiency. Because of our cost advantages in the solar field, only we could afford to base our power plants on air cooled condensers. This is now a very important advantage over our competitors in terms of permitting and environmental aspects.”

This technology speaks for itself with PE1, which helped to secure the purchase of PE2 by EBL amidst the wake of the global financial crisis.

“The financiers became more and more risk adverse and are unwilling to buy into any technical risk at all. It was even harder as a new technology supplier to overcome that issue, therefore we are very proud that in these difficult times we were able to, not by arguments but by facts and by measurements, convince a Swiss utility to purchase the first project that we’re starting to build in Spain,” Selig says.

“There’s a big difference in having a utility sign into a power purchase agreement because this doesn’t expose them to any risk of a new technology. But a Swiss utility doing the first international business out of Switzerland and buying into a new technology would really go through a detailed technical due diligence.”

Novatec has a lot to be proud of, and having convinced this utility company to purchase PE2 during this risk adverse financial climate—their strategic goals for the coming year show no signs of slowing down.

Novatec’s next step

Selig says that Novatec’s key milestones begin with the construction of their first 30 mega watt plant, after which the company plans to turn its attentions to further product development. This will increase the temperature limit of its solar field technology from 270 degrees up to 450 degrees Celsius.

“We will then be way above parabolic trough technology, which is limited to 380 degrees. We will be in the range of all solar power tower technologies, which are aiming to get there, but operating at a much lower temperature range,” he explains.

“Our strategic objective is really to focus on the mass production of the solar field components and the turnkey manufacturing of the boiler systems. That’s different to others who are trying to do everything: project development, solar fields, manufacturing, EPC of the entire solar plant.”

Staying focused will leave the company open to collaborations with other stakeholders such as power plant engineers, CSP project developers and utilities. Selig says that following the crowd and striving to offer an all-inclusive service would be a detriment to the great progress Novatec has continually made.

“I think this would be a constraint for us and we really want to focus on what we can do best,” he says.

Novatec is poised to change the approach, misgivings and reservations of solar power’s past with its world-first new technology, turnkey solar boilers, and by using its current commercially realized projects to back it all up. Novatec is one company where “doing what you do best” is the way to move ahead.

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