Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) Vs Photovoltaic (PV): An In-depth Comparison

The rise in the popularity of solar power energy comes with the expansion of the technologies associated with it. After all, once people realized that the sun can be used to generate electricity, they would understandably find ways on how to do it. And so far, there are two technologies that are used nowadays to generate solar power. These are the Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and Photovoltaic (PV).

But what is the difference between these two? And if possible, which among them is the better option? To answer these questions, it’s better that we compare and contrast these two technologies to see how they differ and what advantages and disadvantages do they offer.

Differences between Concentrated Solar Power and PV

Technologies: CSP vs. PV

To begin with, Concentrated Solar Thermal systems (CSP) produce electric power by converting the sun’s energy into high-temperature heat using various mirror configurations. The way this particular technology works is that the sun’s energy is concentrated by various reflectors, and this concentrated energy is then used to drive a heat engine and drive an electric generator. The plants that utilize this system consists of two parts: one that collects solar energy and converts it to heat, and the other that converts the heat energy to electricity.

CSP is an indirect method that generates alternating current (AC), which will then be easy to distribute on the power network.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, on the other hand, are completely different from CSP. Unlike CSP which uses the sun’s energy, PV solar panels make use of the sun’s light instead. In other words, photovoltaics is the direct conversion of light into electricity. The way this works is that the solar PV cells absorb light, which will then knock electrons loose. Then once the loose electrons flow, a current is created, and this current is then captured and transferred into wires, thus generating a direct electric current (DC). After the direct electric current is generated, it is then converted into AC, usually using inverters, so that it will be distributed on the power network.

Energy Storage and Efficiency : CSP vs. PV

CSP systems are capable of storing energy through the use of Thermal Energy Storage technologies (TES). As a result, they can use it at times when there is little to no sunlight, like during cloudy days or during night time, to generate electric power. Because of the CSP’s ability to store energy, the penetration of solar thermal technology in the power generation industry is increased since it helps overcome irregularity issues.

Meanwhile, PV systems aren’t capable of producing or storing thermal energy since they use direct sunlight instead of the sun’s heat. And in addition to that, storing electricity (for example, in batteries) is also not easily done, especially at large power levels.

Because of this, it is then clear that in terms of energy storage and efficiency, thermal energy storage technologies are better, thus making CSP systems the far more attractive option for large scale power generation. Furthermore, since CSP systems are able to produce excess energy and store it for future use, they can help improve the financial performance and also the sharing ability of solar power and flexibility in the power network.

Investor’s Perspective: CSP vs. PV

There are three main factors that energy markets consider when deciding on power sources: cost of energy, ancillary services, and power dispatch-ability on demand. Obviously, for energy investors, competitive cost of energy is the most important issue. And since PV is a lot cheaper than CSP, more and more energy investors choose it. This trend of investors choosing PV over CSP will continue so long as PV remains cheaper. And it seems like that’s going to continue to happen because PV panels have recently demonstrated a large price drop — about 30% to 40% in just a couple of years — and some expect that these prices will keep on dropping.

As for CSP, if these systems want to be attractive to investors, then they have to find a way to be able to demonstrate high performance in all three attributes. They may be more efficient and able to store a lot of energy for future use, but if they also cost a fortune, no one would want to invest in them.

Aside from the cost, energy market players have also reported that PV systems are a lot easier to build. Building them doesn’t cost much, and it also doesn’t take too much time. This is not like CSP because CSP plants need more space for large-scale applications, and they also have greater risks. Some of these risks include higher investment, challenges with thermal shortage, and cooling.

Related Article: Marketing Influencers That Solar Companies Should Follow

Integration for Increasing Solar Power Penetration: CSP vs. PV

Even though it seems like PV installations are favored just because they don’t cost that much and they’re easier to build, the comparison between CSP and PV will still remain a point of contention. Some might even argue that trying to decide which of them is the better choice is pointless because, at some point in the future, they may no longer have to compete against each other. They may actually merge together and work as one to increase solar energy penetration into the power industry.

In fact, according to the latest research activity at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, TES can supposedly increase the penetration of solar or wind power — which are intermittent renewable energy technologies — into the power industry. This means that CSP, along with the capabilities of Thermal Energy Storage, can be used as a complementary solution to solve the intermittency problems of other renewable energy technologies like solar PV and wind turbines. Both of these technologies heavily depend on environmental conditions, which are unpredictable and unstable, so their reliability, as power generation solutions, are rather limited. Thankfully, CSP and TES might just be able to solve that.

Conclusion

Nowadays, there are two technologies that dominate the solar power industry: the Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and Photovoltaic (PV). These two may be similar in that they both use the sun in order to generate power. But beyond that, they are as different as can be.

To start with, CSP makes use of the sun’s radiation to heat a liquid substance that will then be used to drive a heat engine and drive an electric generator. Meanwhile, PV uses light through the “photovoltaic effect” — the absorbing of light which then leads to the breaking of the electrons — to generate an electric current.

Both CSP and PV have their own pros and cons. In terms of energy storage and efficiency, CSP is superior since it can store energy with the help TES technologies. PV, on the other hand, is incapable of producing or storing thermal energy since they directly generate electricity. Aside from that, it’s also difficult to store electricity.

Although CSP is obviously the more efficient one in terms of energy saving, that doesn’t mean it’s the best option. Between the two, PV is cheaper, so energy investors are more inclined to use it than CSP. In other words, despite its advantages, CSP isn’t the favored one.

However, all these debates of which is better are pointless because they don’t have to compete against each other. In fact, the world will be a better place if they actually work together. Hopefully, one of these days, a new technology for solar power will arise, and it will be a hybrid of the two.

Whatever the case, both CSP and PV are helpful in promoting the solar industry. They both made solar power possible, and they will be the reason why solar power will be here to stay.

Related Article: Solar Buyer Personas: How To Profile Your Ideal PV Customers

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Rikki Suarez

Rikki Suarez majors in Creative Writing and is writing right now for blogs that focus on topics that interest her, such as renewable energy, clean technology, and solar power.

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