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Archive for the ‘eSolar’ Category

photo: eSolar

This post first appeared on Grist.

Amid all the hope and hype about the nascent solar boom under way in California, there’s long been an elephant in the room – transmission. Billions and billions of dollars must be spent to build and upgrade transmission lines to connect dozens of proposed solar power plants to the grid.

Now that elephant has rolled over and squashed one project’s use of innovative solar technology. Last year, California utility PG&E signed a deal with NRG Energy, a New Jersey-based electricity provider, to buy power from a 92-megawatt solar farm called the Alpine SunTower to be built near the desert town of Lancaster, northeast of Los Angeles.

The power plant would deploy solar thermal technology developed by eSolar, a Pasadena startup founded by serial technology entrepreneur Bill Gross. NRG and eSolar earlier had inked a partnership to build 500 megawatts’ worth of solar farms. In January, eSolar reached an agreement with a Chinese company to supply technology for solar farms that would generate a massive 2,000 megawatts of electricity.

PG&E, however, submitted a letter recently to the California Public Utilities Commission  asking approval for a re-negotiated deal with NRG that has resulted in a downsizing of the Alpine SunTower project to 66 megawatts. And instead of deploying eSolar’s fields of mirrors that focus the sun on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a tower to create steam to drive a turbine, the power plant will generate electricity from photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops.

The utility gave no reason for the technology switch. “NRG has not finalized the exact type of panels or the manufacturer of the panels,” a PG&E executive wrote in the letter. “Solar PV panels have been used in installations throughout the world, in both small and utility scale applications.”

However, when I contacted eSolar about the change, I received a joint statement from the company and NRG:

“NRG is returning the project to its originally proposed size to match the transmission capacity available to the project at this time,” it said. “Maintaining the project as previously announced would require waiting for additional interconnection studies and potential transmission upgrades that would delay the project delivery date.”

While solar panels are not as efficient as eSolar’s solar thermal technology in generating electricity, they are modular – meaning you can just keeping adding them to produce a desired amount of power or to match the transmission capacity in an area. ESolar’s power plants, on the other hand, are designed to be built in 46-megawatt units so there’s far less flexibility in scaling them up or down.

It’s too early to say whether this portends other switches from solar thermal to photovoltaic technology, especially as solar cell prices fall and California utilities scramble to meet a mandate requiring they obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of this year and 33 percent by 2020.

But the elephant is getting restless.

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photo: Todd Woody

In an interview I did with green tech entrepreneur Bill Gross for Yale Environment 360, Gross talks about the future of solar energy, his relationship with Google, and how to avoid battles over building large solar farms in the deserts of the Southwest:

Bill Gross is not your typical solar energy entrepreneur. In a business dominated by Silicon Valley technologists and veterans of the fossil fuel industry, Gross is a Southern Californian who made his name in software. His Idealab startup incubator led to the creation of companies such as eToys, CitySearch, and GoTo.com. The latter pioneered search advertising — think Google — and was acquired by Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003.

That payday has allowed Gross to pursue his green dreams. (As a teenager, he started a company to sell plans for a parabolic solar dish he had designed.) Over the past decade, Gross has launched a slew of green tech startups, including solar power plant builder eSolar, electric car company Aptera, and Energy Innovations, which is developing advanced photovoltaic technology.

But it has been eSolar, backed by Google and other investors, that has been Idealab’s brightest light. In January, the company signed one of the world’s largest green-energy deals when it agreed to provide the technology to build solar farms in China that would generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity — at peak output the equivalent of two large nuclear power plants. And last week, eSolar licensed its technology to German industrial giant Ferrostaal to build solar power plants in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. Those deals followed eSolar partnerships in India and the U.S.

ESolar’s power plants deploy thousands of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a slender tower. The heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Last year, eSolar built its first project, a five-megawatt demonstration power plant, called Sierra, in the desert near Los Angeles.

This “power tower” technology is not new, but what sets the company apart is Gross’ use of sophisticated software and imaging technology to control the 176,000 mirrors that form a standard, 46-megawatt eSolar power plant. That computing firepower precisely positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola that focuses the sun on the tower. That allows the company to place small, inexpensive mirrors close together, which dramatically reduces the land needed for the power plant and cuts manufacturing and installation costs.

“We use Moore’s law rather than more steel,” Gross likes to quip, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s maxim that computing power doubles every two years.

You can read the interview here.

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photo: eSolar

In my new Green State column on Grist, I take a look at the implications of California startup eSolar’s 2,000 megawatt solar thermal deal with China:

Forget Red China. It’s Green China these days—at least when it comes to making big renewable deals.

Friday night, a Chinese developer and eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., signed an agreement to build solar thermal power plants in the Mongolian desert over the next decade. These plants would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity. It’s the largest solar thermal project in the world and follows another two-gigawatt deal China struck in October with Arizona’s First Solar for a massive photovoltaic power complex. Altogether, the eSolar and First Solar projects would produce, at peak output, the amount of electricity generated by about four large nuclear power plants, lighting up millions of Chinese homes.

Is China the new California, the engine powering the green tech revolution?

Yes and no. When it comes to technological and entrepreneurial innovation, Beijing lags Silicon Valley (and Austin, Boston, and Los Angeles)—for now. But as a market, China is likely to drive demand for renewable energy, giving companies like eSolar the opportunity to scale up their technology and drive down costs.

[We’ll pause here to state the obvious: China’s investment in renewable energy and other green technologies is miniscule compared to the resources devoted to its continued building of coal-fired power plants and efforts to secure dirty oil shale supplies in Canada and elsewhere.]

“All the learning from this partnership will help us in the United States,” Bill Gross, eSolar’s founder and chairman, told me. “I think as soon as the economy improves in the rest of the world and banks start lending, there will be a lot of competition in the U.S. and Europe. But, until then, China has the money and the demand.”

In a one-party state, a government official saying, “Make it so,” can remove obstacles to any given project and allocate resources for its development. Construction of the first eSolar project, a 92-megawatt power plant, in a 66-square-mile energy park in northern China, is set to begin this year

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” says Gross, who is licensing eSolar’s technology to a Chinese firm, Penglai Electric, which will manage the construction of the power plants. Another Chinese company will open and operate the projects

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: eSolar

In The New York Times on Monday, I follow up on my story in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times on China’s move into solar thermal power with a 2,000 megawatt deal with eSolar of California:

China’s plans to build 2,000 megawatts of solar thermal power using technology from a California company, eSolar, will also include the construction of biomass power plants to generate electricity when the sun sets.

The solar and biomass plants will share turbines and other infrastructure, reducing the projects’ cost and allowing around-the-clock electricity production, according to Bill Gross, eSolar’s chairman.

“That supercharges the economics of solar,” said Mr. Gross in a telephone interview, noting that the addition of biomass generation will allow power plants to operate at 90 percent of capacity.

Under terms of the deal announced Saturday in Beijing, eSolar will license its “power tower” technology to Penglai Electric, which will manage the construction of the power plants over the next decade.

Another Chinese company, China Shaanxi Yulin Huayang New Energy Co., will own and operate the first projects to be built in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in northern China.

A local shrub grown in the surrounding region to fight desertification, called the sand willow, will supply fuel for the biomass power plants, according to Penglai Electric.

“It’s an economical use of a resource that’s already in place,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research and consulting firm. “That’s a very savvy move, rather than attach an energy storage system to the solar project.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about a ground-breaking solar thermal deal struck by eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., to build two gigawatts of power plants in China over the next decade:

ESolar Inc. of Pasadena signed an agreement Friday to build a series of solar thermal power plants in China with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts, in one of the largest renewable energy deals of its kind.

Coming four months after an Arizona company, First Solar, secured a contract to build an equally large photovoltaic power plant in China, the ESolar deal signals China’s emergence as a major market for renewable energy.

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” said Bill Gross, ESolar’s chairman and the founder of Idealab.

Under the agreement, ESolar will provide China Shandong Penglai Electric Power Equipment Manufacturing Co. the technology and expertise to build solar “power tower” plants over the next decade. Those solar farms would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity; at peak output that would be equivalent to a large nuclear power plant. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

The initial project, which includes a 92-megawatt solar power plant to be built this year, will be located in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in the Mongolian desert in northern China. The region has become a hot spot for renewable energy, with the 2,000-megawatt First Solar project planned 60 miles to the north.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: eSolar

Last week Green Wombat wrote about how solar power plant developer eSolar may avoid conflicts over endangered species by building its solar farms on privately owned agricultural land rather than in desert areas home to a variety of protected wildlife.

At the opening ceremony of eSolar’s Sierra demonstration power plant outside Los Angeles on Aug. 5, Wildlands Conservancy executive director David Myers gave a speech praising the Pasadena company for not building power plants in fragile desert ecosystems while criticizing competitors. The Wildlands Consevancy, a Southern California non-profit, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up and preserving broad swaths of the Mojave Desert.

What my story did not point out was a connection between the Wildlands Conservancy and eSolar. The Wildlands Conservancy’s biggest backer has been Southern California investor and environmentalist David Gelbaum, who also serves on the green group’s board.  Gelbaum’s Quercus Trust is an investor in eSolar and dozens of other green tech startups.

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photo: eSolar

eSolar on Wednesday fired up its five-megawatt Sierra “power tower” solar farm outside Los Angeles during an opening ceremony that featured such green tech luminaries as Google.org climate change director Dan Reicher and Dan Kammen of the University of California at Berkeley.

But the speaker that caught my eye was environmentalist David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California non-profit that is working with California Senator Dianne Feinstein to put hundreds of thousands of acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to industrial-scale solar power plants.

“By siting their project on disturbed lands, eSolar has avoided degrading treasured public lands and core areas of biodiversity,” said Myers. “This is an important distinction from the solar firms that propose to industrialize 600,000 acres of pristine California desert lands belonging to the American people.”

I’ve written extensively on Green Wombat and Grist about eSolar’s technology and CEO Bill Gross’ vision of a software-driven solar revolution that taps computing power to drive down renewable energy costs. (Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar has a partnership with energy producer NRG (NRG) to build power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX), PG&E (PCG) and other utilities.)

But eSolar’s strategy of building relatively small-scale modular solar farms on privately owned agricultural land is also allowing it to avoid — so far — fights over endangered species that have slowed big solar power plants planned for federally owned land in the Mojave Desert.

While Myers was praising eSolar at the Sierra ceremony, his environmental group, as I wrote in Wednesday’s New York Times, has been raising issues about the impact of Tessera Solar’s planned 8,230-acre, 850-megawatt power plant on such Mojave species as the desert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard and Nelson’s bighorn sheep.

Meanwhile, Defenders of Wildlife, a local chapter of the Sierra Club and other national and grassroots environmental groups are worried about the impact of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah solar farm on the imperiled desert tortoise. The Sierra Club chapter recently proposed that BrightSource move the solar power plant to avoid disturbing habitat currently occupied by desert tortoises.

eSolar has spent $30 million acquiring previously disturbed ag land — mostly in California. While that should speed development of its solar farms as it won’t need federal approval to build, there’s no guarantee, of course, that the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup won’t also run into critter problems.

Just ask Ausra, the Silicon Valley solar company that’s building a 177-megawatt power plant on ag land in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast. That project has been bogged down in disputes over the solar farm’s consequences for a plethora of species and the cumulative impact of two other solar power plants planned for the same area that First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWR) want to build.

Still, eSolar’s focus on location, location, location could pay off. While the five-megawatt Sierra demonstration plant is a small project, the fact that company was able to get it built in a year is no doubt a competitive advantage.

“This plant delivers the lowest-cost solar electricity in history,” said Gross, the founder of tech incubator Idealab, at the ceremony in the L.A. ex-urb of Lancaster.  “We currently compete with natural gas and as we continue to drive down the cost, we will even compete with coal.”

And if eSolar continues to carefully select sites for its solar farms it won’t have to worry about environmentalists like David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy.

“You can see why the entire environmental community is so excited about a firm that’s model is to use disturbed lands,” said Myers after slamming an unnamed eSolar competitor for trying to build a solar farm in what he described as a fragile desert ecoystem. “We can’t say enough great things about eSolar.”

With that, Gross walked over to a computer, pressed a button and 24,000 mirrors began to focus sunlight on two water-filled boilers sitting atop two towers. As the intense heat vaporized the water, steam flowed to a power block to drive an electricity generating turbine.

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