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Posts Tagged ‘BrightSource Energy’

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

In any emerging industry, there are turning points that bear watching. One of those occurred Tuesday when BrightSource Energy, a California developer of solar power plants, announced the appointment of John E. Bryson as its new chair.

Bryson is a key player in the energy-enviro-regulatory industrial complex, and a member in good standing of the Fortune 500 whose decision to join BrightSource is another signal that Big Solar will be a Big Thing.

A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, Bryson went on to become chair and chief executive of Edison International, one of the United States’ largest utilities. He also serves on the boards of Boeing and Disney, as well as the Santa Monica electric car startup Coda Automotive. He is also an advisor to New York private equity and buyout giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

Before going corporate, Bryson was president of the California Public Utilities Commission and California State Water Resources Control Board.

In short, Bryson, 67, is someone who knows his way around the top echelons of the nation’s energy and financial power structure.

Such connections will be key for BrightSource. The company has so far signed contracts to supply more than 2,600 megawatts of electricity to California utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison. It will need to secure many billions of dollars in financing to build more than a dozen large-scale solar power plants to fulfill those deals.

The California Energy Commission on Wednesday is expected to license BrightSource’s first solar project, a 370-megawatt power plant to be built in Southern California’s Ivanpah Valley.

Bryson will serve as non-executive chair, meaning he will not have operational control over the company. A BrightSource spokesperson, though, told me Bryson “intends to be a very active board chair.”

BrightSource has shown itself adept at developing strategic relationships. It counts Google, Morgan Stanley, and Chevron as its investors and brought on engineering giant Bechtel as the chief contractor to build its first power plant as well as to take a stake in the project.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The anemic economic recovery may have hit the dog days of summer with consumer spending and factory orders slowing, but the new energy economy continues to surge, according to a report released Tuesday by Ernst & Young.

Venture capital (VC) investment in renewable energy, electric cars, energy efficiency, and other green technology jumped to $1.5 billion in the United States in the second quarter of 2010, a nearly 64 percent spike over the second quarter of last year. Green tech investment now has returned to the record levels of the third quarter of 2008, before the global economic collapse shut down the VC’s ATM.

So where’s the money going? Between March and June, at least, investors hitched a ride with startups developing electric cars and the infrastructure to support them. Better Place, the Palo Alto company building electric vehicle charging networks around the world, snagged $350 million. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a sexy and pricy plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, scored $35 million, according to the report.

Solar remains a hot opportunity for venture capitalists, with nearly $439 million invested in the second quarter, a 183 percent increase from the year-ago quarter.

It’s no coincidence that the beneficiaries of investors’ largesse are also those startups that received federal loan guarantees to build big solar power plants. (Raising additional capital usually is a requirement for obtaining such federal loan guarantees.)

BrightSource Energy, for instance, secured a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build its first solar power plant, now undergoing licensing in California. It then quickly raised $180 million from investors.

VCs also continue to pour cash — nearly $200 million in the second quarter — into energy efficiency startups, which tend to be far less capital-intensive than renewable energy companies.

So it’s a good time to go pitch that great green tech idea you’ve been kicking around, right?

Not necessarily. Ernst & Young notes that nearly 59 percent of investment in the second quarter went to so-called later-stage startups that are well on their way to rolling out products.

In other words, venture capitalists seem to be more interested in priming the pipeline for initial public offerings or acquisitions that will produce a big pay day than in financing what green tech investor Vinod Khosla calls “science experiments.”

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I write about the solar industry’s dismay over the rent and other fees the United States government will charge developers to build big solar power plants on federal land in the desert Southwest:

The nation’s biggest landlord, the United States government, has set the rent it will charge developers who build solar power plants on federal land, and some prospective tenants are not happy.

Solar developers will actually pay two fees – the lease for the land along with what the Bureau of Land Management calls a “megawatt capacity fee” based on how much electricity a project generates.

“Since we don’t have authority to collect royalties for wind and solar projects, we had to come up with a methodology to convert that electrical generation into an upfront rent payment,” Ray Brady, manager of the bureau’s renewable energy team, said in an interview.

But potential developers see a disparity. “The proposed B.L.M. rental fees are in many cases two times higher than market rates for private land,” Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an e-mail message. “The B.L.M. must collect ‘fair market value’ from developers, but this seems to go beyond that threshold.”

That methodology is a work in progress as the agency tries to adapt decades-old formulas designed for oil and gas leasing and mineral extraction to renewable energy production.

Some 23 million acres of federal property are suitable for large-scale solar development, according to the bureau, and the agency has received more than 200 lease applications from developers who covet hot and sunny desert real estate in the Southwest.

Solar farms typically require vast swaths of land, meaning the lease fees can be considerable depending on a project’s location and local property values. The Bureau of Land Management’s solar rents range from $15.70 an acre in Hidalgo County, N.M., to $313.88 an acre in Riverside County, Calif.

For instance, BrightSource Energy will pay the government about $427,000 a year in rent for its 3,400-acre Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino, Calif., now undergoing licensing. The company, based in Oakland, Calif., will also pay an annual megawatt capacity fee of $2.6 million for the 392-megawatt solar thermal power plant. Fees over the 25-year life of the contracts that BrightSource has signed with California utilities would total about $76 million.

In neighboring Riverside County, First Solar, a solar module maker and developer based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to build a 550-megawatt photovoltaic farm on 4,410 acres of federal land. Lease and capacity fees for the Desert Sunlight project will total about $4.3 million a year.

The agency is charging different capacity fees for different solar technologies. Photovoltaic power plants, which deploy solar panels like those found on residential rooftops, are assessed $5,256 a megawatt.

Developers of more efficient solar thermal power plant, which uses mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives a turbine, pay $6,570 a megawatt. The same rate is charged for concentrating photovoltaic farms that use mirrors to focus the sun on a highly efficient solar cell.

If either technology uses energy storage systems to produce electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, the fee jumps to $7,884 a megawatt. The fees will be phased in over the first five years of a power plant’s operation.

Some developers and environmentalists argue that such a fee structure penalizes technologies that are more efficient and thus use less land.

“This is an unfortunate way of emphasizing one technology over another,” said Bobby McEnaney, a land program expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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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