But around the world, the technology has been hit by price declines caused by overcapacity and recession that have increased the competitiveness of the industry's main rival, solar photovoltaic (PV) energy.
Mariàngels Pérez Latorre, the secretary general of the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association, said the US government's move, announced on 25 October, would not dramatically change the US situation.
“This is nothing,” she told EurActiv. “It is one-fifth of the cost of a small 100MW plant, which would typically cost about half a million dollars.”
Decisions on whether to fund the building of such plants in the US are yet to be taken, she added. But CSP supporters are not encouraged by the US government's funding decision.
In August, Solar Trust of America, a joint venture between the German firms Solar Millennium AG and Ferrostaal AG, announced that they were changing technologies from CSP to PV for a new multibillion dollar plant in Blythe, California.
Then in October, Solar Millennium – a CSP specialist company – sold its entire 2.25GW US solar portfolio, saying it would "be available as a project partner as soon as the US demand for storable solar energy starts growing once again".
A few weeks earlier, the utility-scale CSP developer, Stirling Energy Industries, filed for bankruptcy.
A ‘VHS-Betamax moment’
Christopher Burghardt, vice president of the First Solar PV company, told EurActiv that the solar technology race was approaching a ‘VHS-Betamax moment’ – a reference to the 1980s videotape war that the VHS format won.
“But the analogy is not great because Betamax was actually better than VHS and they’re both dead now,” he added.
“Commercially PV has won the race,” he said. “The problem is that the World Bank’s clean technology fund is only available to CSP in North Africa – and there is a big push by some European governments to try and support their industries there.”
“Governments in those countries are to some extent being pushed into adopting a technology that clearly hasn’t worked successfully in the developed world,” he said. “We should just be technology neutral.”
Many CSP projects in the North Africa region are currently being harnessed by the Desertec Industrial Initiative, which ultimately aims to provide Europe with 15% of its electricity needs.
Paul Van Son, chief executive of Desertec, says the technology is “very expensive” and “at the very beginning of its learning curve”. But he thinks this will change.
“It is legitimate to have all kinds of ideas about the future,” he told EurActiv. “Many technologies that no one believed in have broken through one day, while others - which people said would be the future - never took off.”
“We simply say it looks promising, there is an industry and interest from governments, so lets go for it.”
Some environmental groups fear that if the two technologies are played off against each other, the only winners will be the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.
“We need the whole range of technologies in the renewable sector to move to 100% [energy supply from] renewables as quickly as possible,” Sven Teske, Greenpeace international's renewables director told EurActiv.
“CSP has the advantage that its storage technology is relatively well developed, so CSP power stations can deliver dispatchable electricity that you can store and use at night as well,” he said.
In the medium term, both technologies would complement each other, he argued, despite the current “hard competition” between them.