* Solar plant uses salts, generating 20-25 pct more energy
* Technology seen as option in North Africa, Middle East
* Italy seeks to relaunch itself in CSP sector
By Deepa Babington
PRIOLO GARGALLO, Sicily, July 14 Italy's largest
utility Enel (ENEI.MI) on Wednesday opened a long-delayed solar
plant boasting new technology that could help Italy partially
catch up with more advanced solar markets like Spain.
Sun-drenched Italy, Europe's No.3 solar market, is trying to
relaunch itself in the concentrated solar power (CSP) sector --
which uses sunlight and mirrors to generate power -- after
working on the technology in the 1970s but subsequently shelving
In the meantime, countries like the United States, Israel
and Spain have leapfrogged ahead to establish CSP plants.
Unlike conventional CSP plants that use synthetic oil,
Enel's "Archimede" plant in the industrialised Sicilian seaside
town of Priolo Gargallo uses molten salts as fluid in the
system, allowing for much higher temperatures to be generated
and the heat stored for a longer time.
The plant, the first CSP start-up in Italy, has capacity of
5 megawatts and will produce 9 million kilowatt hours a year --
enough to satisfy the electricity demand for about 4,000 homes.
The newer technology allows 20 to 25 percent more energy to
be produced than it would otherwise - albeit at a higher cost at
the moment, said Enel research chief Sauro Pasini.
"Whether it will displace current technology we don't know,
but we expect it to be competitive with other technologies,"
said Pasini, adding it should help Italy recover lost ground on
the solar front. "Instead of starting with the same technology,
we wanted to go one step ahead."
There has been speculation that Libya -- which has been
buying up stakes in Italian companies and seeking greater
collaboration with firms here -- was interested in replicating
the Archimede plant in the North African desert.
For now, costs remain a major hurdle. Enel CEO Fulvio Conti
said the company had invested about 60 million euros ($76.25
million) in the project, which has costs about 10 times higher
than that of an adjacent gas-fired plant.
"This is a prototype that has a high level of costs -- it's
the first of its kind," Conti told reporters. "We're confident
of being able to create a mechanism to reduce costs. That will
allow us to use this technology in the sunny countries in North
Africa and the Middle East."
The project, conceived about 10 years ago, is named after a
scientist from the nearby town of Syracuse, Archimedes, who
according to legend used giant mirrors to capture the sun's rays
and focus them on attacking Roman ships in 212 BC.
CSP technology essentially uses large mirrors to concentrate
the sun's rays onto tubes filled with liquid, which converts
water into steam and drives turbines to produce electricity. A
top Italian industry official last year said as many as four
experimental CSP plants are being planned in the country.