Dr. David Mills of Ausra on Alternative Energy Techonlogy for Utility-Scale Thermal Solar Power

An interview with Dr. David Mills, Chief Scientific Officer and Founder of Ausra:

Dr. David Mills has worked in the alternative energy field for over 30 years. He was born and raised in Canada and educated in Australia. In his University of Sydney lab he developed and licensed the evacuated-tube solar water heater technology, which consists of about 60 percent of the world’s solar collectors and created an advanced double cermet selective absorber coating, which is used in tube receivers by Chinas largest solar company. He also invented or co-invented the Prism solar concentrator (Sol X) and the S evacuated tube reflecting system (Solahart). He’s saved his best for last however, with his pioneering Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) technology, which is what is presently being manufactured for utility-scale thermal solar power.

Solar thermal uses fields of special mirrors to shine the sun’s energy on water-filled piping, which then boils and turns it into steam to run turbines that produce electricity. There is no pollution or use of photovoltaics (solar panels). This technology is literally changing the way our planet will supply its every increasing need for energy free of fossil fuels or dangerous by-products. It provides green jobs, helps stop global warming, is cost effective and can be on the ground running within the next few years. All of North America and Europe’s electrical power needs (day and night) can be generated with this system, by using a desert land area less than 92 by 92 square miles. The parts for solar thermal power plants will soon be available for the world’s leading polluters (China, India, Europe and the U.S.), as well as other continents.
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Ausra’s revolutionary solar field design consists of several mirrors sharing a receiver. This lowers the cost of the mirrors while greatly reducing overall plumbing required.

Dr. Mills and his company (Ausra) have already signed contracts with one of the largest power companies in North America (Pacific Gas & Electric) to deliver 177 megawatts; are building the first U.S. manufacturing plant for solar thermal power systems in Las Vegas, Nevada; and plan on having a pre-commercial demonstration project up and running by the end of this year. One of the other largest utility companies in The States (Florida Power & Light) and its parent (FPL Group), have also taken a close look at Dr. Mills solar thermal technology. Their chairman and CEO, Lewis Hay, states, “As the operator of the largest solar energy facility in the world, we view this breakthrough technology as a promising option.”

I recently interviewed Dr. Mills at Ausra’s headquarters in Northern California. He shared some of his thoughts and insights about the environment, our energy needs and the quickest way to transform our fossil fuel economy to a solar and all-electric society.

Gabriel Constans (GC): It appears that the technology you are using at your present and future power plants can literally change the world and the way it obtains its energy needs. Do you realize that you are someone who, in many respects, could be seen as one of the great scientists and innovators of the century?

Dr. David Mills (DM): This kind of technology will certainly change how we produce and generate energy. This technology can be the big gorilla of generating energy. Presuming the electrified auto sector, it will soon be electricity and oil, not the other way around. There are already 3 battery companies that have batteries which can recharge electric car batteries in minutes. If you put that together with generating technology which is readily available on the grid, you have the ingredients to say we don’t need oil anymore, we don’t have to import oil.

GC: Is there enough private, organizational and government interest to adopt this technology?

DM: These things are world changing in many ways. The common term would be disruptive technology. It isn’t necessarily that way, in a negative fashion, but it does change things. It is positive disruption, though there will be winners and losers. If you look at the rail traffic in the U.S., 80% of it involves carrying fuel. If you don’t need it to carry fuel anymore, than you’re going to have to re-evaluate that industry. On the other hand, if you look at glass (used for solar reflecting mirrors, parts and tubing), it will probably double or triple that industry. Steel will stay about the same, but turbine production will be bigger than ever. There will be a lot of impacts on the economy, but in the end, in terms of employment and energy efficiency, the economy will be a superior economy.

GC: At what point are you in the process? When will you figuratively turn on the switch?

DM: We have developed a proprietary system to store energy. We’ll be developing and demonstrating this storage unit at a pre-commercial test facility in California this year. We anticipate that we’ll have energy storage commercialized by 2010. Having a turbine built and delivered is presently between 2-3 years. It’s the turbines which may cause some delay, not the know-how or technology. Similar companies, (such as Sterling) are facing the same issue. What convinces people is a plant on the ground. One can wave their arms around a lot at conferences, but the real deal is to have it working, having it connected to utilities and having it operating reliably. At that point people will get it.

Dr. David Mills

GC: How is thermal solar technology being accepted in the rest of the world?

DM: The entire field is going to progress very quickly. The greatest development is taking place right now, especially in the U.S. In Europe that isn’t so much the case. They set up a system called “feed in law” which is giving a comfortable amount of income to companies. They could continue to take the old designs and run with it for security. Here (in the U.S.) the market is tougher and more competitive, which means costs are kept down, so were seeing real development going on here. In my opinon, they aren’t lowering the feed in laws fast enough in Europe. For it to work around the world, you have to set up parallel corporations that can be competing in markets using these technologies. There are already other companies in the U.S., as well as other countries and companies that are interested. This will happen, but to manage this great of growth is going to be a serious challenge. There are many places that need electricity for social betterment, but social betterment is not the same thing as environmental rescue. They both have to be done. It’s a matter of prioritization.

GC: How did this all come about?

DM: I came up with this design and system independently, but once I did research I discovered that at least 2 other groups had attempted to go down this path before. One in the 1960′s built a small unit, including an Italian that built one in Southern France and another in the U.S. that tried but didn’t get very far with funding. We basically resurrected the idea. Other companies that are doing similar projects descended from us in one way or another. They’re all people that were involved with us or came in contact with us.

GC: What will it take to get power from companies using solar thermal technology to the public?

DM: We don’t have to put in an entirely new infrastructure for this technology, in the short term. In about 10 years you’ll get to the point were you need new power lines and new cross-continental low-loss DC lines to get that power to heavy population centers, like in the North East. People are going to have to get used to the idea that just like we have a trans-continental highway system, we need a trans-continental transmission system. Similar discussions are going on in Europe, such as the transmission of power from North Africa into Europe. We can build these things very quickly. What is generally the limitation is the present infrastructure, which people tend to like to run until it dies. Most of the existing plants will be gone in 40 years. If we decide on a Marshall Plan for energy, it’s possible to have it completed in 25 years. It would have to be global and would be the biggest thing ever. It would be an infrastructure that benefits everyone all the time. No matter what happens, its going to be a profitable exercise for people.

GC: Aren’t people reluctant to trust large corporations and power companies? Isn’t that why there has been such a push over the last 20 years for people to be independent and to have individual sources of energy for their own home or business?

DM: People sometimes confuse their dream of autonomy and independence from utility payments with the desire to be free of entanglements. The fact is, our economy involves a lot of people, a lot of transport, there is a lot of industry and community activity that goes on. It isn’t just an individual home owner off by themselves. The home is not the major part of electricity consumption or source of pollution. We shouldn’t be afraid of a utility scenario. From a practical point of view, it’s easier to put in a number of large plants very quickly, compared to convincing everyone individually that this is a good idea. In the end, both kinds of societies are possible, but I think this one can go much more quickly. It’s not to say the small scale won’t work, it’s simply a matter of time. Right now, we can change the amount of green electrons flowing through everyone’s circuits instead of a few. The source will be different, though the electricity is the same and we don’t have to change a lot of infrastructure. People shouldn’t be afraid of the large utility companies just because they’re large.

It only takes about 92 miles by 92 miles of a solar thermal plant to fulfill the energy requirements for North America and Europe. That’s not big. That’s smaller than a mining footprint for coal. It’s a benign system. People living next to this type of technology don’t mind them. We’re finding its more acceptable than wind power. Thermal solar power already exists. We can also store the energy created, so it carries us throughout the year and in all kinds of weather. It’s possible here and now and throughout the world.

7 Responses to “Dr. David Mills of Ausra on Alternative Energy Techonlogy for Utility-Scale Thermal Solar Power”
  1. Skip Michael says:

    Solar thermal power plants are not what the public wants or needs.

    If you examine the cost of “power” getting to the consumer you will find that it is very cheap, it’s the transmitting the power to the consumer that is costly and only get more costly every day.
    I don’t want the power companies be the Middle East oil cartel of the future. When the power companies can manipulate the amount of power that is produced it can manipulate the prices as well. The power companies, will owned the lines of transmission and will increase the cost of getting it to me stating that the maintenance, insurance and other hidden cost goes up and the cost must be passed on to the consumer. Look at your present “power” bill, see what the costs are just to get it to you are; you will be surprised.

    What we as the people of this country is complete independence from power producers. We need to cool and heat our homes with solar panels that ore on OUR homes with very short transmission. With the money saved from not paying the “power” producers we can buy other things that stimulates the economy and makes wealth. Dr. Mills saying the the infrastructure would not be improved is just not telling the truth. With his idea the “transmission” lines will have to be improved and upgraded, which means being passed on to the consumer.

    Dr. Mills statement that we confuse our dream of autonomy and independence from utility payment and entanglements. What hog wash; and he knows it. Saying that the home owner is not the better part of the income power companies want is just not the truth. Dr. Mills, we the people are not as stupid as you think we are, just because you have Dr. before you name, does not mean we should pay any attention to your self serving writings.

    Build your power plants, I will put solar panels, wind turbines and new battery technology in my home and watch you go broke.

  2. David Mills says:

    One statement I made was mis-transcribed. I said that our dream of autonomy and independence from utilities is confused with our environmental necessities. Nevertheless, I believe Skip’s comment exactly illustrates that point, that people often get more wound up about escaping utilities than escaping a global warming disaster.

    It is possible theoretically to run a electrified energy economy from large scale renewable energy systems, or many small scale systems, or – more likely – a mix of the two. Right now we need to move quickly on the environment and cannot wait around for speculative battery development. At the moment the best technical prospect for fully replacing fossil fuel, nuclear and oil fired transport over 24 hours is a mix of solar thermal electricity with thermal storage, assisted by non-storage wind and PV, and storage hydroelectricity. However, without the advent of very low cost storage for PV and wind, solar thermal end up the predominant player in order to host the others.

    Skip is right in one sense: the market will decide. If a very low cost electrical storage appears, then PV and wind can expand to take much more of the current electricity and transport market. But right now, PV and wind do not have such systems on the horizon.

    If we go broke, it will be because someone comes out with a cheaper renewable technology package with storage, not because hate utilities. So, let me know when the mysterious ‘new battery technology’ arrives, Skip. I just don’t see it out there, at the cost it needs to be.

  3. GOPAL SOMANI says:

    Hello Mr. Mills
    I have been actively working in India to set up a solar thermal power plant at Jodhpur which has highest DNI 2260 kwh/m2 by implementing CSP trough technology since 1998.
    Unfortunately this has not happened so far with following reasons
    1.The cost of Solar Block i.e.Collectors, absorver,solar themal storage device,HTF system, heat exchangers including solar steam generator etc. has been very high and 5 to 6 times high (US$3700/kw)compared to power block equipments.
    2.Utilities, Regulators,Landers and financial institutions in are not convinced to support for a MW scale solar power plant on such high cost solar block resulting in tariff of INR 18/kwh as against INR 3/kwh of pooled energy cost.
    Is there a possibility of cost reduction on solar block by deploying alternate solar themal technology in the current market trends of Trough / Tower technology with storage option to extend operations during non solar period?.
    I would also like to know key technical features of your solar thermal system with storage device along with cost benifits compared to trough technology.
    If you are confident of your technolgy which could succeed to break through the barriers in India, kindly inform me for an association with Indian Power Sector to proceed.

    Thanks and regards

    Sincerely yours,

    Managing Director
    ZDRiVE Software Pvt. Ltd
    Jaipur India

  4. Robin Green says:

    Obviously solar thermal plants are better than coal-fired power plants, but aren’t we tying ourselves even more to large-scale generation systems by doing this? I hope that any move we make towards a mega-scale solar thermal system is part of a coordinated effort to significantly reduce demand. If all we do is replace current supply with greener sources, we will have missed the biggest opportunity. And we’ll use way more land, and way more fossil fuels building the solar thermal installations, than if we start with some serious conservation measures.

    I cut my own home energy use to less than a quarter my provincial average for a household of four – without buying any fancy technology other than a Kill A Watt meter (see http://www.green-energy-efficient-homes.com/kill-a-watt.html) to figure out where my electricity was getting used. If there were proper incentives (read full-cost accounting of electricity prices) in place, and a bit more funding for home energy audit subsidies to help people figure out how to conserve, we could close down many coal fired power plants for good before a single new solar thermal plant opens.

    Fix the demand side first. It’s usually cheaper than fixing the supply side.

  5. M Pandiyan says:

    Dear Dr David Mills

    Your concept of implementing appears interesting, can you mail us the tentative costing and necessary infrastructure required for implementing the same. I have similar views as Mr Gopal Somani, what are your views on issues of high cost of generation primarily due to high cost of solar blocks.

    Thanks and regards
    M Pandiyan

  6. Verdegia says:

    There is increasing concern that governments are allowing companies to reduce the price paid to producers of exported renewable energy. Large banks and organizations dominate the large scale markets of renewable energy generation that have up till now made significant profits in the current climate.

    The price of energy doesn´t seem to get cheaper – clearly the changes must be made within each of us and adopt our own renewable energy generating capabilities and reduce our demand on expensive, fluctuating imported energy.

    Verdegía in Spain have a solution, Solar Engine Systems that generate plenty of green energy. If we ourselves, government and councils adopted this type of new technology then we could all very quickly change the effects of our demand on fossil fuels. – The Solar Engine Systems supplied from Verdegía boast 39kW/h and operate 24/7. That´s enough energy for 12 or more homes! And, they only take up the space of a single 200W PV panel.

    A major cost in renewable energy farms is the infrastructure, land and high capital investment, producing electricity locally within a distributed network is the most cost effective. It’s time to move away from large expensive solar farms and into the next generation of high performance renewable energy generators that effectively create a solar farm within one panel and at a 100th of the cost. This technology will allow us to turn vacant city rooftops into a hive of renewable generators that will not only feed our cities but will provide energy independence.

    Imagine a future where electricity was FREE and in public places you could just plug in and know that the energy being consumed has come from 100% renewable sources.



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