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Archive for the ‘BrightSource Energy’ Category

photo: BrightSource Energy

In last Thursday’s New York Times, I wrote about French industrial conglomerate Alstom’s $55 million investment in BrightSource Energy, a California-based solar power plant builder:

Alstom, the French energy giant, has taken a $55 million stake in BrightSource Energy, a solar power plant builder backed by Google, Morgan Stanley and other investors.

The investment is part of a $150 million round raised by BrightSource in one of the biggest renewable energy deals of the year. The California State Teachers Retirement System also joined the latest funding round as did the existing investors VantagePoint Venture Partners, Morgan Stanley and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Based in Oakland, Calif., BrightSource has now raised more than $300 million. Alstom becomes one of the startup’s largest shareholders and will take a seat on the board, according to John Woolard, BrightSource’s chief executive. The French company makes turbines and other power systems for fossil fuel, nuclear and hydro power plants and operates a division that builds high-speed trains.

BrightSource has signed contacts to build solar thermal power plants in California that would generate some 2,600 megawatts. In February, the company obtained a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the federal government to help finance the construction of its first project, a 392-megawatt power plant to be built in the Southern California desert by Bechtel.

Mr. Woolard said Alstom would help the company as it sought to develop more efficient solar power plants.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: BrightSource Energy

In The New York Times on Wednesday I write that California regulators have recommended approval of BrightSource Energy’s 392-megawatt solar thermal power plant, the first large-scale project in the state in two decades:

California regulators on Wednesday recommended that the state’s first new big solar power plant in nearly two decades be approved after a two-and-half year review of its environmental impact on the Mojave Desert.

The recommendation by the California Energy Commission staff comes three weeks after the United States Department of Energy offered the project’s builder, BrightSource Energy, a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to construct the 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, or I.S.E.G.S.

The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity favor solar energy projects but objected to building the BrightSource power plant in Southern California’s Ivanpah Valley, saying it would harm rare plants and animals such as the desert tortoise.

Other environmentalists argued that the project, which features thousands of mirrors that focus the sun on 459-foot-tall towers, would mar the visual beauty of the desert.

In an assessment filed on Tuesday, energy commission staff found that a smaller version of the project that BrightSource proposed last month would mitigate any damage to several protected plant species on the site.

Environmentalists, however, had said the downsized version of the power plant would not sufficiently protect rare species and continued to push for the project’s relocation to more disturbed land.

The energy commission staff determined the visual impact of the Ivanpah power plant could not be reduced but recommended that the commission’s board license the project due to “overriding considerations.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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image: Tessera Solar

In a follow-up to my New York Times story Tuesday on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill to ban renewable energy production in parts of California’s Mojave Desert, I take a look at some of the incentives in the legislation that could speed green energy projects:

In Tuesday’s Times, I write about Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill to create two Mojave Desert monuments in California that would ban renewable energy projects on lands that are both coveted for solar farms and valued for their sweeping vistas and populations of rare wildlife.

The mere prospect of the legislation has derailed several massive solar power plants planned by Goldman Sachs and other developers. But Mrs. Feinstein, a California Democrat, has included provisions in the bill that could, if enacted, accelerate renewable energy development and ease tensions over endangered species that are slowing other solar projects outside the monument area.

In a big concession to renewable-energy advocates, Mrs. Feinstein would allow transmission lines to be built through existing utility rights-of-way in the monument to transmit renewable energy from other desert areas to coastal metropolises. That will not likely sit well with some of the senator’s environmental allies. (Nor will a provision that permanently designates areas of the desert for off-road vehicle use.)

The legislation also features a pilot program to assemble huge tracts of land -– at least 200,000 acres — to be used as endangered species habitat to make up for areas lost to renewable energy production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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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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