Chris Murray, CEO, Solar Systems

PV Insider chats with chief executive officer Chris Murray about the company’s reflective CPV technology and how it’s ideally suited to the MENA region.

Chris Murray, CEO, Solar Systems: In the last six months, I have visited Dubai...

Australian HCPV technology manufacturer, Solar Systems, are developing the next generation of their product that will operate at a much higher efficiency and can be used for cogeneration of electricity and thermal energy. Here we ask CEO Chris Murray about the opportunities and advantages of CPV solar technology  in the MENA region.

Q: Solar Systems is unique in that its technology uses reflective technology, which represents only 5-10% of the CPV market today. Could you elaborate on this?

A: Our CPV technology is high concentration CPV; we concentrate the sun by 500 times and our next generation product concentrates the sun by 1,000 times. We believe that reflective CPV at 1000 times concentration will be much more efficient in terms of converting the sun’s energy to electricity than refractive CPV.

One of the reasons for this is that our reflective dish technology allows the use of centrally mounted multi junction solar cells, as used in the space industry, which in turn enables active cooling of the cells. As a result we are able to maintain the lowest possible operating temperature, which ensures that the cells continue to produce energy efficiently no matter what the temperature conditions are.

Q: Has that proved an advantage for the Middle East region?

A: Our active cooling technology has a significant advantage in areas that have high DNI and where it is hot and dusty – that’s our target market. Actively cooling the cells keeps them operating at higher efficiencies because the thermal losses are less than alternate PV technologies.

To cool the cells, we pump water in a closed loop system up to our centrally mounted solar cells, the water increases in temperature and takes the heat away from the cells. So we keep the cell temperature at a lower and more efficient point. The hotter the climate, such as in the Middle East, the more important the benefits of active cooling become.

That’s also one of the significant advantages of our product. Because we actively cool the cells, we produce hot water and have the ability to do cogeneration of electricity and thermal energy. Therefore, not only will we be competitive at producing electricity, but we can also use the heat energy in the water for another process – be that desalination, district cooling or industrial processes.

For example, the MENA region, especially Saudi Arabia, has a significant need for desalination. About 16% of the Kingdom’s electricity is used to desalinate water. We’re able to use the energy that’s in our cooling water to provide energy to the desalination process, which gives us a major competitive advantage over non-actively cooled CPV or PV systems.

Q: Some say that CPV’s need for dual-axis tracking adds expense to the overall plant cost. What is your view on this?

A: The dual-axis tracking allows our product to track the sun and operate more efficiently. By tracking the sun during the course of the day, we’re making sure we get the optimum angle of our dish and of the solar cells to the sun, and that’s why we don’t get the losses that you would have in a system that doesn’t have dual-axis tracking. This more than offsets the additional cost.

Q: Have you built any cogeneration power plants yet?

A: At this stage, the six plants that we have in Australia and the plant in Saudi Arabia are generating electricity. We are now working on cogeneration applications including desalination and absorption chilling.

We can supply water between 70 and 100 degrees Celsius, which can be used to provide energy to applications such as desalination, agricultural uses, such as heating of green houses and livestock housing, or for absorption chilling. This has great application in hot regions where the absorption chilling can be utilised for centralized air conditioning systems.

Q: Water consumption is one of the biggest challenges for solar power plants in the Middle East; how much water does your technology use in operation and maintenance?

A: We use no water in the operation of our dishes. Our cooling process is closed loop, similar to the cooling system in your car. Once you put the first charge of de-mineralized water into one of our dishes, you don’t need to supply additional water. We also use a semi-dry cleaning process, hence minimal water is needed for cleaning.

Q: Which parts of the MENA region have you been focusing on?

A: We are very interested in the solar power programmes that many governments in the region have, such as Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Our focus now is to complete the development of the next generation of our product that will operate at a much higher efficiency, which we believe will be competitive with flat-panel PV and other CPV even without cogeneration. Then with cogeneration, we’ll have a significant advantage over those technologies.

Solar Systems is looking for a strategic investor at the moment as our parent company Silex Systems has decided to focus its interests on its core technology.

We’re targeting markets that have high DNI as well as the regulatory framework that will support solar energy, so we’re looking at countries and regions such as Chile, North America, South Africa and of course the MENA region and Australia. We’re particularly focusing on the Middle East, where we think there is a great project development pipeline and a real interest in developing solar technology.

In the last six months, I have visited Dubai, Riyadh, Jeddah, the US, the UK and parts of Europe, talking to our suppliers and potential investors in the company. We’ve seen significant interest and are working with a number of parties towards an investment in the business by the middle of 2015.

Q: How has the performance of your operational plants been so far?

A: We have six projects in Australia. Four of those operate at remote power stations and displace the use of diesel. They’re owned by government entities so they’re commercially operational sites. The other two are test sites, and when we are testing, they export electricity to the national electricity market in Australia. We’ve gathered an enormous amount of data from those plants; they have met our expectations and the data has been fed into the design of the next generation of our product.

Our plant at the Nofa Equestrian Resort in Saudi Arabia is also operating up to our expectations. We initially had some teething issues and we had to learn how to operate the plant in the region’s hot and dusty environment. We are now happy with the operation of the plant and would like to acknowledge the owner of the resort, HH Prince Sultan Bin Mohammed Bin Saud Al Kabeer, and of our project partner Al Khafrah Group Holdings, chaired by Sheikh Mubarak Al Khafrah.