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Solar thermal turns up the heat in renewables market

February 2nd, 2009

Let’s back up for a moment. No matter what technology you’re using, to generate a lot of solar power, you need a lot of sunshine, so it’s no surprise that solar thermal start ups are sprouting up in sunny California.

And California offers more than sunshine to these renewable energy companies.

The state’s C02 emission standards are setting a tough benchmark for the rest of the nation: the state has set a goal of increasing California’s renewable energy sources to 20 percent by 2010, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said he supports reaching 33 percent by 2020. Utilities like Northern California’s Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) have a real incentive to get renewables into their mix.

“In August we signed contracts for 800 megawatts of renewables:  solar, wind, geothermal, and cow-power (renewable natural gas),” said PG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Zerwer.

Finally, the Silicon Valley investment climate, though declining with the down-spiraling economy, has not yet dried up for solar energy companies.

We took a look at two Northern California solar thermal start ups – one larger, one smaller. They’re tracking a similar path to becoming large-scale solar energy providers to California utilities, and have their sights set on bringing the power of the sun – the ultimate renewable resource – to the nation, and the world.

BrightSource Energy, Inc.

BrightSource Energy Inc., headquartered in Oakland, CA, designs and builds large scale solar power plants for industrial and utility customers worldwide. BrightSource Energy’s solar thermal technology uses thousands of small mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a boiler atop a tower to produce high-temperature steam, which is then piped to a turbine that generates electricity. The company claims its system, originally developed in Israel, offers higher operating efficiencies than other solar thermal technologies, making it competitive with fossil fuels.

BrightSource’s Wachs went into more detail. “We have an array of heliostats, large flat glass mirrors. A 100-megawatt plant will have 50,000 mirrors in the desert surrounding a very high tower, in the 300-foot range. On that tower is a 20-foot boiler. The sun comes down and hits the heliostats, and the heliostats then reflect, in coordination, all of the sun’s rays towards that boiler. The water in that boiler reaches temperature of 550 degrees Celsius, above 1000 degrees F. That creates high-quality steam at a high pressure, and that steam then turns the turbine, which generates electricity.”

The seed for BrightSource Energy was Luz International, a company which set out to prove large-scale solar could work by building nine large solar plants in California’s Mojave Desert in the 1980s. The company reconfigured in 2004, changed its name a couple of times, and is now building a 400-megawatt plant on the California-Nevada border in and near the Mojave Desert called the Ivanpah Solar Power Complex, which it says will produce more electricity in one year than all of the residential solar installations currently installed in the US. (see rendering, left)

The complex would connect to the Southern California Edison grid. Other details about the project are outlined on the California Energy Commission website.

While this sounds like the job of a giant company, Brightsource is, “a well-capitalized startup,” Wachs said. The company has raised $160 million through three rounds of venture funding, but Wachs said it is going to need more financing to construct its Ivanpah plant.

That’s not to say BrightSource doesn’t have contracts. Last spring, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric ordered 900 megawatts of clean, renewable solar power from Brightsource, the largest solar power commitment ever made by a utility.


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