photo of desert tortoise tagged with a radio transmitter at the Ivanpah solar farm site: Todd Woody
In Yale Environment 360 on Wednesday, I interview John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, the California solar developer that has begun construction of the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in two decades:
Today, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and other dignitaries gathered in the Mojave Desert to officially break ground on BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in nearly two decades.
BrightSource is one of a half-dozen big solar farms, with a combined electricity-generating capacity of 2,829 megawatts, licensed by the California Energy Commission over the past two months. By year’s end, California and federal regulators expect to approve additional projects that will produce a total of 4,143 megawatts. At peak output, that’s the equivalent of several nuclear power plants and more than seven times the solar capacity installed in the United States last year.
The approval of the projects comes after years of environmental review and controversies over the installations’ impact on water, wildlife, and fragile desert landscapes. The power plants licensed so far will cover some 39 square miles of desert land with a variety of new and old solar thermal technologies. Unlike rooftop photovoltaic panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal uses the sun to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating industrial turbines.
BrightSource’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah project, located just over the California border, 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, is the world’s largest solar-thermal power plant project currently under construction. The company, led by CEO John Woolard, received a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy to build the project, which will deploy 347,000 large mirrors that will surround three towers on 3,500 acres of federal land. The mirrors will focus the sun on a water-filled boiler that sits atop the tower to create high-temperature, high-pressure steam.
Woolard, 45, came to BrightSource as chief executive in 2004 after co-founding Silicon Energy, an energy efficiency software company, and stints at California utility PG&E, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and VantagePoint Venture Partners, a leading Silicon Valley green tech venture capital firm. He sat down with Yale Environment 360 contributor Todd Woody at BrightSource’s Oakland, Calif., headquarters to talk about the future of Big Solar and the challenges the industry faces — from a woefully inadequate electricity grid to the imperative of minimizing water use — as multibillion-dollar projects finally begin to become a reality.
Yale Environment 360: Are we witnessing the birth of a major new solar industry in the United States?
John Woolard: I hope. The number I always go back to is that we have done 74,000 permits for oil and gas in the last 20 years and we finally have five or six for solar. That’s a good step forward. The agencies are learning how to permit, they’re learning how to move forward. It’s great for the industry and we can finally get some size and consequence.
e360: As the photovoltaic industry increasingly becomes dominated by overseas companies in China and elsewhere, does the sheer scale of these solar thermal projects in the U.S. give the country the opportunity to become the technological and market leader?
Woolard: Oh, yeah. Solar thermal is very different from [photovoltaic technology]. The power has different characteristics and is more reliable. They’re almost apples and oranges. Solar thermal has got very interesting We don’t have a quantity and energy problem; It’s a collection and distribution problem.” attributes and characteristics that make it unique.
In the U.S. we’re lucky. The southwestern U.S. has high desert, which means it’s closer to the sun, less atmosphere to go through. It’s the best solar resource anywhere, outside the Anaconda Desert in Chile or a few places. Harnessing that resource effectively is the most important thing. So we don’t have a quantity and energy problem; it’s a collection and distribution problem.
e360: BrightSource’s Ivanpah project is not only the first large-scale solar thermal project to break ground, it is the first to deploy a new power tower technology. Why is that significant?
Woolard: Our team was part of building older trough plants and you learn a lot. If you take a power tower, you get higher temperatures and pressures. That gives you higher thermo-to-electrical conversion efficiency. Think of that as more efficiency, less waste, lower cost. Because of that, you need fewer mirrors, less solar field, and you have a more efficient design.
The other gets down to how you actually build on the land. If you take the older trough designs or anything with a lot of mirrors, [it] would degrade the land. It’s more damaging from a soil and runoff perspective.
The big [problem] is water. What is the world going to look like over the next 20, 30, 40 years? Water in the desert is going to become a much more challenging proposition. So we’ve gotten water usage down to a minimum — the lowest of anybody in the world, basically.
You can read the rest of the interview here.