Green Wombat happened to be chatting with BrightSource Energy CEO John Woolard yesterday at the solar power startup’s Oakland, Calif., offices when an executive burst into a conference room with big news: the California Energy Commission had accepted BrightSource’s application to be build the first large-scale solar thermal power plant in the Golden State in 16 years. “We were found data adequate this morning by the CEC,” said Doug Divine, vice president of project development. “That’s huge,” replied Woolard. “It’s a big step.”
Indeed it is. In Commission-speak, being declared “data adequate” means the expensive, year-long process of assembling hundreds of pages of documents detailing the proposed 400-megawatt power plant and its environmental impact had passed bureaucratic muster. Now the Commission begins a 12-month process to review and license the project. If all goes well, ground could be broken in early 2009 on on BrightSource’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, to be built in the Mojave Desert just across from the Nevada border in San Bernardino County. (BrightSource’s artist rendering above.)
BrightSource is currently negotiating a 500-megawatt power purchase agreement with California utility PG&E (PCG), and Woolard says the company is in talks with other utilities to supply another 1,000 megawatts from seven power plants. BrightSource has applied to lease a site from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a second solar power plant, a 500-megawatt project to be built near Broadwell Dry Lake in the Mojave. The company has relied on venture capital for funding but Woolard revealed Wednesday that the company has also secured investment from Morgan Stanley (MS).
There’s a certain historical symmetry in the Commission’s decision. BrightSource was founded by American-Israeli pioneer Arnold Goldman, whose Luz International built the last big solar power plant in California in 1991. That was Solar Electric Generating System IX, the last of nine solar trough power plants constructed by Luz in the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles and that today are mostly operated by FPL (FPL).
BrightSource has developed a new solar technology, dubbed distributed power tower, that focuses fields of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats on a tower containing a water-filled boiler. The sun’s rays superheat the water and the resulting steam drives an elecricity-generating turbine. BrightSource is now building a 7-megawatt pilot power plant in Israel to show investors the distributed power tower is ready for prime-time. “The technology is locked down,” Woolard says.