Posts Tagged ‘NRG’

photo: eVgo

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

Houston, we have an opportunity.

The nation’s oil capital is making a bid to become the first city to deploy an electric car infrastructure. NRG Energy, a power provider, announced Thursday that it will finance the installation of personal and public charging stations throughout an auto-dependent metropolis synonymous with sprawl.

“The service station of the future is your garage,” David Crane, NRG’s chief executive, said on a conference call Thursday morning. “It’s our strongly held view that if given a choice, Americans want to make a difference. They want to make a difference with respect to the environment and with respect to national security.”

Called eVgo, the $10 million network will feature 220-240 volt Level 2 chargers for Houstonians’ garages that will charge electric cars like the Nissan Leaf overnight.

“Freedom Stations” and “Convenience Stations” will be dispersed around the city and offer Level 2 charging as well as fast-charging that lets drivers top off their batteries in about 10 minutes to get a 30-mile boost.

NRG, working with electric infrastructure company AeroVironment and General Electric, plans to install 50 Freedom Stations by the middle of next year, building them at shopping centers and along freeways in a 25-mile radius from downtown Houston.

Charging posts will be installed at Walgreens drugstores, at Best Buy outlets, and at H-E-B, a chain of Texas supermarkets.

“Our goal is that anywhere in Harris County, Texas, you’ll be within five miles of a charger,” said Crane, who added that NRG’s plan was to eventually deploy around 100 Level 2 and fast-charging stations.

EVgo will offer three-year contracts with monthly subscription packages ranging from $49 to $89. For $49, drivers get a home charger. The more expensive subscriptions offer home chargers and unlimited access to the entire charging network.

Crane said Houston’s suburban sprawl and maze of highways actually makes the city more suitable for an electric car infrastructure than greener-than-thou West Coast cities.

“The advantage a city like Houston has over places like San Francisco and New York City is that the great majority of people have garages,” he noted. “And people understand energy down here.”

He said the goal is to sign up 1,000 eVgo customers during the project’s first year.

Four electricity providers have joined the eVgo coalition, including TXU Energy and Reliant Energy (which is owned by NRG).

While NRG operates fossil fuel-fired power plants, it has also made investments in renewable energy, including taking a $300 million equity stake in BrightSource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar project, now under construction in the Southern California Desert. NRG also has a joint venture with solar power plant developer eSolar to build solar farms in the desert Southwest.

Still, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News asked Crane, “Why are you starting this in Houston? Are you taunting the oil industry?”

Crane chuckled and then said, “Let me state for the record we’re not taunting the oil industry.”

But making a buck at Big Oil’s expense is another matter.

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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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eSolar Sierra
photo: eSolar

California may be in the midst of licensing dozens of massive megawatt solar power plants but New Mexico may be first state out of the gate with a big project using next-generation solar thermal technology. On Thursday, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar and utility giant NRG Energy will build a 92-megawatt solar thermal power plant — the state’s first — near the Texas border that will go online in 2011.

“The New Mexico Public Utilities Commission has approved the project, we have the permits and  we already have the land so we’ll be breaking ground in 2010,” eSolar CEO Bill Gross told Green Wombat. “We already have the equipment and the financing partner, NRG. We’re ready to go.”

In February, Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar agreed to supply its technology to NRG (NRG) to develop solar farms generating 500 megawatts.

eSolar will use fields of mirrors to focus the sun on water-filled boilers that sit atop towers. The heat vaporizes the water and the resulting steam drives electricity-generating turbines. Competitors use large, slightly curved — parabolic — mirrors to focus sunlight. That requires big and expensive steel frames to hold the glass in place.  eSolar’s solution: make small flat mirrors the size of an LCD television screen that clamp on to a  5 x 12-inch frame and then use software and Big Iron computing to position the mirrors to create a “dynamic parabola” out of the entire heliostat field.  Gross says eSolar’s small heliostats can be cheaply manufactured take up less land than conventional mirrors.

That means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines, lowering costs and avoiding some of the endangered species fights that have slowed Big Solar projects in California. (See Green Wombat’s column on Grist for a first-hand look at eSolar’s Sierra demonstration plant in Southern California.)

The New Mexico solar farm will be built on 450 acres of agricultural land about 10 miles from El Paso, Texas. Utility El Paso Electric (EE), which serves parts of New Mexico, will buy the electricity generated by the solar power plant — enough to power 74,000 homes  — under a 20-year power purchase agreement. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We think there’s room for a lot more solar power plants at this price,” says Gross. “The sun is very good in New Mexico and all the economics that make this project work are very good there.”

In March, First Solar (FSLR) said it would build a 30-megawatt thin-film photovoltaic solar farm in northeastern New Mexico.

eSolar’s five-megawatt Sierra demo plant outside Los Angeles, pictured above, has begun producing steam and will soon start generating electricity — “It’s the only solar power tower operating in North America,” Gross says.

Next year, ground will be broken on an eSolar power plant in India and NRG and eSolar have a deal to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of solar electricity.

“The idea of these plants dotting the desert and producing electricity has been our dream for a long time,” says Gross, “and now it’s a reality.”

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