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Archive for the ‘BrightSource Energy’ Category

In Tuesday’s New York Times, I write about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to ban renewable energy production in two proposed national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

AMBOY, Calif. — Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely. The California agency charged with planning a renewable energy transmission grid has rerouted proposed power lines to avoid the monument.

“The very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

“The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

The federal government made a competing commitment in 2005, though, when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West.

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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2009 Solar Decathlon

photo: Stefano Paltera/DOE

In my new Green State column on Grist (I’m stealing the above headline from Grist executive editor Russ Walker), I take a look at the state of green tech venture investing gleaned from a recent seminar at the University of California, Berkeley:

Silicon Valley is by nature an optimistic place. After all, inventing the carbon-free future and making boatloads of money along the way is fun. And even though California is slouching toward apocalyptic collapse these days, there’s always another innovation wave to ride.

So it’s always interesting to get a more-or-less unvarnished assessment of the state of green tech, as happened last week when a group of regulators, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs gathered at the University of California, Berkeley’s business school. They were there for the Cleantech Institute, one of those pricey, closed-door seminars for executives and government officials. (I was present to “facilitate.”)

The good news: Speakers reported that investors are starting to turn on the taps again when it comes to funding green tech startups.

But don’t expect a return to the halcyon days of 2008 when $4 billion poured into all manner of green technology companies. In the wake of the “Great Recession,” VCs are reassessing their investment strategies as it becomes clear that the success of their portfolios will be influenced to a large degree by government policy and incentives.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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Stirling Energy Systems Solar One project

image: Tessera Solar

In a feature published in today’s New York Times, I look at a water war breaking out in the desert Southwest over plans to build dozens of large-scale solar power projects on hundreds of thousands of acres of land:

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. — In a rural corner of Nevada reeling from the recession, a bit of salvation seemed to arrive last year. A German developer, Solar Millennium, announced plans to build two large solar farms here that would harness the sun to generate electricity, creating hundreds of jobs.

But then things got messy. The company revealed that its preferred method of cooling the power plants would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, about 20 percent of this desert valley’s available water.

Now Solar Millennium finds itself in the midst of a new-age version of a Western water war. The public is divided, pitting some people who hope to make money selling water rights to the company against others concerned about the project’s impact on the community and the environment.

“I’m worried about my well and the wells of my neighbors,” George Tucker, a retired chemical engineer, said on a blazing afternoon.

Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water. Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year.

“When push comes to shove, water could become the real throttle on renewable energy,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin who studies the relationship between energy and water.

Conflicts over water could shape the future of many energy technologies. The most water-efficient renewable technologies are not necessarily the most economical, but water shortages could give them a competitive edge.

In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to turn on the tap. Other big solar projects are mired in disputes with state regulators over water consumption.

To date, the flashpoint for such conflicts has been the Southwest, where dozens of multibillion-dollar solar power plants are planned for thousands of acres of desert. While most forms of energy production consume water, its availability is especially limited in the sunny areas that are otherwise well suited for solar farms.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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solarh

Photo: BrightSource Energy

In today’s New York Times, I write about how Harvey Whittemore — one of Nevada’s biggest power brokers and a confident of Senate majority leader Harry Reid — has responded to the housing crash by leasing desert land at his mega-home development to BrightSource Energy for a 960-megawatt solar farm complex.

What to do when building a 159,000-home city in the Nevada desert and the housing market collapses?

Go solar.

The Coyote Springs Land Company this week expanded a deal with BrightSource Energy, a solar power developer based in Oakland, Calif., to carve out 12 square miles of it its 43,000-acre mega-development for solar power plants that would generate up to 960 megawatts of electricity.

Harvey Whittemore, Coyote Springs’s chairman, said his plan always was to include some renewable energy in the massive golfing community under development 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. But, Mr. Whittemore said, he decided to go bigger as the housing market crashed and solar developers like BrightSource began to sign deals with utilities.

“We’ve always said we’ll adjust the land use plan to the market,” said Mr. Whittemore in an interview. “At the end of the day we have approvals for 159,000 units and we looked at what we could do to reduce the number of units while at same time coming up with a functional business plan that takes advantage of private land.”

Private land is in short supply in Nevada, where the federal government owns about 87 percent of the state. That has forced solar developers like BrightSource – which is under the gun to supply 2,610 megawatts to California utilities — to seek leases on desert property managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management, a years-long process involving extensive environmental review.

By dealing with Mr. Whittemore, BrightSource is sidestepping all of that and acquiring an ally who knows how to get things done in the Silver State.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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esolar_8
photo: eSolar

In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about how the rise of green technology is changing the way Silicon Valley venture capitalists do business:

Silicon Valley venture capitalists have always been about inventing the future — taking a wild idea, nurturing it with cash and creativity and giving birth to new products, companies and industries we once couldn’t imagine and now can’t conceive of living without: the Web, Google, the iPhone, Twitter.

But as green technology becomes the latest tech wave to break from the nation’s entrepreneurial epicenter, it’s now all about companies reinventing the past. Solar power companies, electric car start-ups and algae biofuel ventures aim to remake century-old trillion-dollar industries on a global scale.

Venture capitalists poured $4 billion into green-tech start-ups in 2008 — nearly 40% of all tech investments in the U.S., according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Green-tech investment plunged in the first half of 2009 to $513 million as the recession dragged on, but there are signs of a rebound: Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures announced this month that it had raised $1.1 billion — the biggest first-time fund in a decade — that would be largely devoted to investing in green-tech start-ups, many in Southern California.

But green-tech companies face unique challenges, including global markets, tough technological hurdles and a future shaped by government incentives and regulatory policy. Those challenges are changing the game on Sand Hill Road.

“If you’re starting a Web 2.0 company, your basic needs are personnel and servers — there is no physical product, no manufacturing capacity, no inventory, no steel in the ground,” VantagePoint’s Salzman said, referring to software-based companies that provide services over the Internet.

Green-tech start-ups, he said, often need big money and investors steeped in big science and big government.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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solarh
Photo: BrightSource Energy

In another sign that old-line corporate giants see solar power as big business, engineering and construction giant Bechtel has signed a deal with BrightSource Energy to build the solar developer’s first solar power plant, a 440-megawatt project in Southern California on the Nevada border. As I write in Wednesday’s New York Times:

Bechtel, the global engineering and construction giant, has jumped into the solar power plant business in a deal with a developer to build a 440-megawatt energy complex in California.

The agreement, being announced Wednesday, calls for Bechtel’s development and finance arm, Bechtel Enterprises, to take an equity stake in the solar project known as the Ivanpah Solar Electricity Generating System. The collection of three solar power stations will deliver electricity to Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.

Bechtel is teaming up with BrightSource Energy, a start-up company based in Oakland, Calif.

Ivanpah is the first large-scale solar power plant to undergo regulatory review in the United States in nearly two decades, and the selection of Bechtel as BrightSource’s engineering, procurement and construction contractor is considered a significant step in obtaining financing needed to build the project.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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solara

photo: BrightSource Energy

Chevron and solar developer BrightSource Energy have revealed a deal for a solar steam plant that is being built in an oil field in California. As I wrote in The New York Times this week:

BrightSource Energy has broken ground on a 29-megawatt solar steam plant at a Chevron oil field in Coalinga, Calif.

The 100-acre project’s 7,000 mirrors will focus sunlight on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a 323-foot tower to produce hot, high-pressure steam.

In a conventional solar power plant, the steam drives a turbine to generate electricity. In this case, the steam will be injected into oil wells to enhance production by heating thick petroleum so it flows more freely. Oil companies typically rely on steam generated by natural gas or other fossil fuels to maximize oil recovery in places like the oil patch in California’s Fresno and Kern counties, where the petroleum is heavy and gooey.

You can read the rest of the story here:

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solarF

In Monday’s New York Times’ Green Inc. blog, I take a look at two recently approved solar energy contracts in California that offer a rare look at the economics of large-scale solar power plants:

California regulators have approved contracts for more than 8,600 megawatts of renewable energy, to be generated mostly by big solar power plants for the state’s largest utilities. But the details of those deals and the emerging economics of green energy often remain shrouded in secrecy, subject to confidentiality agreements.

That black box cracked open a bit on Thursday, when the California Public Utilities Commission gave the green light to two 25-year power purchase agreements between Pacific Gas & Electric and BrightSource Energy, a solar power plant builder based in Oakland, Calif.

When approving contracts for 310 megawatts of solar electricity, the utilities commission also signed off on an apparently first-of-its-kind technology royalty agreement between BrightSource and PG&E.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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eSolar Sierra

photo: eSolar

The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday began accepting applications for at least $3 billion in direct funding of renewable energy power plant projects.

The funding, part of the federal stimulus package, is in lieu of a 30 percent investment tax credit that green energy developers can take on their projects. Given that most solar and wind developers carry no tax liabilities, they have relied on investment banks and other investors to front the hundreds of millions and billions of dollars in financing needed for their projects in exchange for the tax credits. But as the economy tanked along with investment banks, demand for so-called tax equity partnerships evaporated.  Big Solar projects stalled and wind developers delayed turbine orders.

Curiously, the Department of Energy said on Friday that the $3 billion would fund some 5,000 projects. That works out to about $600,000 per power plant. But a single 250-megawatt solar power plant alone can cost more than a $1 billion and would thus soak up $300 million or 10% of the funding pool.

The question is, will DOE end up funding a few large-scale green energy projects that could start to give, say, the solar thermal industry economies of scale, or will it spend the money on hundreds of smaller renewable energy facilities?

That’s a crucial issue for solar developers like Tessera Solar/Stirling Energy Systems, eSolar and BrightSource Energy, which is backed Google (GOOG), Morgan Stanley (MS) and VantagePoint Venture Partners as well as a clutch of oil giants – Chevron (CVX), BP (BP) and Norway’s StatoilHydro.

Also left unsaid in the DOE’s announcement was the fact that renewable energy projects need to break ground by the end of 2010 to qualify for the direct funding. Which is why BrightSource, Nextera Energy (a subsidiary of utility giant FPL Group (FPL) ) and Tessera Solar are eager to expedite the lengthy California licensing process and get their projects approved before New Year’s Eve 2010 so they can put shovel to dirt and start shoveling cash into their coffers.

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Stirling SunCatcher

photo: Tessera Solar

When it comes to renewable energy, Texas has been all about Big Wind. But this week the Lone Star State took on its first Big Solar project when San Antonio utility CPS Energy signed a 27-megawatt deal with Tessera Solar.

Houston-based Tessera is the solar farm developer for Stirling Energy Systems, which makes a Stirling solar dish. Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, the 25-kilowatt solar dish focuses the sun’s rays on a Stirling engine, heating hydrogen gas to drive pistons that generate electricity. (Last year Irish green energy firm NTR pumped $100 million into Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Stirling Energy Systems and created Tessera to develop solar power plants using the Stirling dish, called the SunCatcher.

Stirling Energy Systems previously signed deals with Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to supply up to 1,750 megawatts of electricity from some 70,000 solar dishes to be planted in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Other solar developers privately have cast doubt on Stirling’s ability to make good on those contracts, arguing the SunCatcher is just too expensive and complex to compete against solar thermal technologies that rely on mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But earlier this week, Stirling unveiled the latest generation of the SunCatcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. The new SunCatcher has shed 5,000 pounds and its Stirling hydrogen engine contains 60% fewer parts than the previous version, according to the company.

The SunCatcher also uses a fraction of the water consumed by competing solar thermal technologies being developed by startups like BrightSource Energy and Ausra — no small deal in the desert. Tessera solar farms also can be built in modules, meaning that when a 1.5 megawatt pod of 60 SunCatchers is installed it can immediately begin generating electricity — and cash.

California utility PG&E also went modular Thursday when it signed a 92-megawatt deal with New Jersey’s NRG (NRG) for electricity to be generated by a Southern California solar power plant using eSolar’s technology. Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar’s builds its solar power tower plants in 46-megawatt modules. The power plants take up much less land than competing solar thermal technologies, thanks to eSolar’s use of sophisticated software to control small mirrors that are packed close together.

NRG earlier this month signed a deal to build a 92-megawatt eSolar-powered solar farm in New Mexico near the Texas border.

eSolar CEO Bill Gross says his solar farms will generate electricity cheaper than natural gas-fired power plants, a claim PG&E (PCG) appears to confirm in its submission of the deal to the regulators. (Thanks to Vote Solar for pointing to the document.)

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