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Process Heat: the Solar Thermal Challenge of the Future

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 15, 2008

So far solar thermal technology is mostly used for domestic hot water, pool heating and room heating. It´s often forgotten that there is a huge demand for heat below 250 °C in industry, which can easily be reached with solar thermal collectors.

An international team of researchers working on behalf of the International Energy Agency estimated the realisable potential of solar process heat in the European Union at 100 GWth, which corresponds to 140 million m2 of collector area. T

Today, however, a solar thermal capacity of only 13.5 GWth is in operation across Europe. Task 33 of the International Energy Agency reported 85 solar process heat plants worldwide with a capacity of 27 MWth. However, this market segment seems to be waking up. Just recently, news about huge solar process heat installations did the rounds. There is the 13,000 m2 plant in Hangzhou, China, on the roof of the textile dyeing factory Daly Ltd., which is most probably the biggest installation for solar process heat in the world. The total investment adds up to RMB 12 million (€ 1.11 million) including the tanks and mounting system. According to the project developer, the Chinese company Shenzhen Quir Solar Technology Co., Ltd, the solar collectors will save RMB 3.38 million (€ 0.31 million) per year, so that the investment will pay off within 3 years. The hot water is provided at a low temperature of 55 °C. Secondly, this summer the German brewery Hofmühl GmbH in Eichstätt will start operating a pilot plant with 1,389 m2 of vacuum tube collectors, which will supply process heat between 90 and 140 °C to the brewing and cleaning processes. The owner of the system estimates a reduction of 20 % in the annual energy demand of the factory. The company is convinced that the investment will pay off and has plans for subsequent upsizing to 3,000 m2. The project is being subsidised by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

What are the main topics for the future to open this new market sector?

What are solar thermal systems made of?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

Flat plat collectors are made of metal, glass, insulating and joining materials. Typically copper, steel or aluminium is used for the absorber configuration. The sides and bottom of the collector are usually metal and insulated with mineral wool to minimize heat loss. The glass top is made of special glass to resist facture and maximise transmission of energy. In the future, a variety of materials and combinations of materials including plastics may be used to improve cost benefits ratios, higher temperature ranges and systems performance.

What can solar thermal technology be used for?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

There is a wide variety of applications for solar thermal technology. The most common application is the heating of pool water, the heating of domestic hot water and space heating. Not very wide spread yet are solar cooling systems, because of the complexity of the technology and the high initial investment costs.

Are there any disadvantages to using solar energy?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

Solar thermal systems most probably have higher "first costs" than other kinds of heating systems. Also, the energy is not available 24 hours a day and not sufficiently during all seasons of the year. That means that storage systems like water tanks and backup systems are a must in all solar thermal installations.

What are the advantages of solar thermal technology at a national level?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

“Replacing imported fuels with local jobs”, this slogan of the European Solar Thermal Industry Federation (ESTIF) sums up perfectly the advantages of solar thermal technology for a national economy. The six biggest solar thermal markets in Europe – Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Greece and France – already exceeded 34,000 full time jobs in 2007 (check related article here). With an annual average growth rate of 20 % that is 6,800 jobs more each year. In the boom year 2008 in Europe this calculation results in 116,000 full-time jobs.

What are the long-term future perspectives of the sector in Europe?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

The ambitious scenario of the European Solar Thermal Industry Federation (ESTIF) expects Europe will reach 0.7 kWth (1 m2 of collector area) per European in 2020, equivalent to a total capacity in operation in the EU by then of 320 GWth. To reach this target, a suitable support framework will be required and solar will then be widely used for both cooling and supplying process heat, though the majority of this capacity will still supply domestic hot water and space heating.

Which are the big players of the industry?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

You have fast-growing independent producers here which focus on the production of solar thermal components only. Some of these companies are more than 30 years old, like the German Wagner & Co, the Israeli Chromagen and the US-American Sun-Earth. But the global market leaders today are newer firms like Greenonetec in Austria, the biggest flat-plate collector manufacturer in the world, which was founded in 1991 (turnover 2008: 117 million Euro). Find the ranking of the biggest flat-plate collector manufacturers here.

What are the long-term future perspectives of the sector worldwide?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

The international solar thermal market is growing constantly but with ups and downs. According to the annual study "Solar Heat Worldwide" the newly installed collector area globally grew accordingly:

2004: 12.6 % 

2005: 10.3 %

2006:  22 %

2007: 8.7 %

The future perspective depends very much on the market development in China. In the last seven years the solar thermal market in the People’s Republic increased at an average rate of 21 % per year.

Which are the major solar thermal markets worldwide?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

By far the largest solar thermal market in the world according to newly installed solar thermal capacity per year is China. In 2008, around 21 GWth (30 million m2) were sold in China, which was around 80 % of the world global solar thermal market.

Is solar thermal technology still a niche market?

Submitted by Baerbel Epp on May 9, 2008

There are a number of mature markets like Israel, Austria, Barbados, China or Cyprus where solar thermal is used by a wide majority of people for heating the domestic hot water and sometimes for room heating.

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