That was the headline news that eSolar chairman and Idealab founder Bill Gross slipped to Green Wombat during dinner Sunday night as Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference kicked off in Pasadena. The other investors include Idealab and Oak Investment Partners. Big numbers grab attention but the far more interesting angle is the technology that eSolar is developing. If it lives up to its claims, eSolar could help break the logjam that has put Big Solar on the slow track in California.
“We just completed tests at our test site this week and we will be able to produce electricity that is competitive with coal,” said an animated Gross Sunday evening.
That is the Holy Grail of renewable energy and the charge set out by Google (GOOG) founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page when they launched their green power initiative, RE<C (Renewable Energy less than Coal), in November. Google.org subsequently invested $10 million in Pasadena-based eSolar. (eSolar did not say how much of the $130 million Google.org ponied up in the latest round.)
eSolar has been operating in stealth mode but Gross shared details of the company’s technology and how it intends to produce greenhouse gas-free electricity so cheaply — a claim sure to be met with some skepticism by competitors like Ausra, BrightSource Energy and Solel.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem much radically different about an eSolar solar thermal power plant — it’ll use fields of mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a tower containing a water-filled boiler. The resulting heat will create steam that will drive an electricity-generating turbine.
The tipping-point innovation, according to Gross, is the mirrors and the software that controls them as well as the modular design of the power plants.
While Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource is developing a similar system, Gross says eSolar is able to use smaller mirrors — called heliostats — that can be cheaply mass produced from off-the-shelf glass like that used in bathroom mirrors. Proprietary software developed by eSolar controls each sun-tracking mirror, increasing their efficiency to produce more electricity. “It’s all about the software,” Gross said.
Smaller more powerful solar fields means that eSolar can build power plants on far less land than competitors for less money, according to Gross. For instance, a 500-megawatt solar power plant can cost more than $1 billion to build and requires thousands of acres of land — which is why most will built in remote deserts. But eSolar plans to build modular, 33-megawatt power plants that can be constructed on a couple hundred acres and plugged into existing transmission lines near urban areas.
“We’ve already bought up rights to enough land to produce more than a gigawatt of electricity,” said Gross, showing Green Wombat a map of California polk-a-dotted with the locations of potential eSolar power plants. A gigawatt can power about 750,000 homes.
The small size of each power plant has another benefit — solar thermal power stations under 50 megawatts do not have to be licensed by the California Energy Commission. That means eSolar can cut at least a year or two off the process of getting a solar power plant online.
That will certainly be attractive to the Golden State’s big utilities — PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) — which face a mandate to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.
Although all those utilities have signed massive megawatt deals with solar energy companies, no plant has been yet built.
Gross says that while eSolar has been talking to the utilities it’s not going to wait to have a power purchase agreement in hand before building its first plant.
“Sergey said to go for it and we are.”