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esolar-field_wide_2b
photo: eSolar

SAN FRANCISCO — “It’s all about the software,” says eSolar CEO Bill Gross.

The tech entrepreneur and founder of startup incubator Idealab is explaining how eSolar’s solar power plants can produce carbon-free electricity cheaper than planet-warming natural gas. At the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco, Gross flashes a photo of eSolar’s demonstration solar farm outside the Southern California town of Lancaster, where 24,000 mirrors called heliostats surround two 150-foot towers.  The heliostats concentrate sunlight on a tower containing water-filled boilers and the resulting heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Rivals like BrightSource Energy use similar “power tower” technology but according to Gross, eSolar’s mirror-controlling software and modular plant design will allow it to produce cheaper solar electricity.

For instance, Gross says competitors use large, slightly curved mirrors to focus sunlight. That require 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 parabola out of the entire heliostat field.

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

The heliostats roll off an assembly line in China with the wiring and sun-tracking motors built in. “The only tool required to install mirrors in the field is a hand wrench,” Gross says. “There’s  no welding in field, you just install the mirrors on the base. We’ve taken all the labor in the field and moved it to an automated factory.”

The heliostats also do not have to be precisely placed in the solar field, which saves time. “The rows can be wavy as the software will correct for it,” Gross notes. “We don’t need to do extensive surveys to design the field; we just need to leave enough space between mirrors.”

The bottom line: The five-megawatt Palmdale project was built in less than six months. “We think we can finish plants before other people start,” Gross told Green Wombat.

Gross says eSolar has also signed a 92-megawatt deal with a New Mexico utility, which he declined to identify until the agreement is announced. He said his Pasadena, Calif.-based company will also soon unveil a contract to build 500 megawatt’s worth of solar farms in Asia. So far, eSolar has spent $30 million acquiring land – mainly privately owned agricultural property – for solar power plants, according to Gross. He told Cleantech Forum participants that eSolar expects internal rates of return for its partners of between 11% and 14% for U.S. power plants and returns of 20% to 30% for overseas projects.

Also saving time and money are the power towers, which are made from two sections of a windmill tower. At 150 feet they’re half the size of competitors’ towers – again, less steel is needed. The lower height and the software systems that allow more mirrors to be crammed into smaller spaces means that eSolar’s power plants can be placed closer to urban areas where transmission lines are available.

Also unique is the boiler that sits atop the tower. Gross gave Green Wombat a close-up look the proprietary technology. About the size of a cargo shipping container, the “cavity receiver” has openings on either side. The heliostats focus sunlight into the interior of the boiler, which is lined with water-filled pipes.

“The benefit is that the light comes in and even if some light is reflected it can have multiple bounces and still hit the pipes,” Gross says. “We can get all the light inside the cavity all because of the software that controls the mirrors.”

Whether Google (GOOG)-backed eSolar’s plants produce electricity at the low rates Gross is claiming won’t be known until they start coming online. But utilities are betting that this solar software works. Southern California Edision (EIX) last year signed a 20-year-contract with eSolar for 245 megawatts of electricity while coal-dependent NRG Energy (NRG) this week agreed to invest $10 million in eSolar in exchange for the right to develop up to 500 megawatts using the company’s technology. (Southern California Edison is betting even bigger on BrightSource Energy’s power tower technology – two weeks ago the utility signed a 1,300 megawatt power purchase agreement with the Oakland startup – also backed by Google – the world’s largest solar deal to date.)

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photo: eSolar

NRG Energy, one of the United States’ most coal-dependent utilities, on Monday signed a deal with California startup eSolar to develop solar power plants.

The agreement calls for NRG  to invest $10 million in Pasadena-based eSolar for the right to use the startup’s technology to develop and operate three solar power projects in California and the Southwest that would generate 500 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.  NRG ranks as one of the nation’s dirtiest utilities,  spewing 70 million tons of carbon dioxide annually from its coal-fired power plants, according to a 2007 Fortune Magazine story.  But the Princeton, N.J.-based Fortune 500 company has sought to clean up its ways under CEO David Crane, pursuing carbon-capture technology and moving to build nuclear power plants.

Last year eSolar, founded by Idealab’s Bill Gross and backed by Google, won a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of green electricity annually. Last  April, eSolar scored $130 million in funding from Google.org, Google’s (GOOG) philanthropic arm, and other investors to develop solar thermal technology that Gross claims will produce electricity as cheaply as coal-fired power plants.

Like rivals Ausra and BrightSource Energy – which have deals with utility PG&E (PCG) – eSolar will use fields of mirrors to heat water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Gross says that eSolar’s software allows the company to individually control smaller sun-tracking mirrors – called heliostats – which can be cheaply manufactured and which are more efficient and take up less land than conventional mirrors. According to Gross, that means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines rather than out in the desert, lowering costs.

In October, eSolar’s then-CEO told Green Wombat that the company was more interested in being a solar technology provider than a power plant construction company.

The eSolar deal gives NRG (NRG), which operates coal-fired power plants in Texas and the Northeast, a foothold in the California renewable energy market. The first solar farm will go online in 2011 and NRG will have the right to develop 11 of eSolar’s 46-megawatt modular power plants. eSolar currently is building a five-megawatt demonstration power plant in Lancaster, Calif., that is expected to be completed this year.

“By coupling NRG’s construction capabilities and regional operating expertise with eSolar’s innovative … technology, we can advance NRG’s renewable energy portfolio while helping to accelerate development of these important projects on a commercial scale,” said NRG executive Michael Liebelson in a statement.

During a press conference Monday, Liebelson said NRG would be able to take advantage of the 30% investment tax credit for renewable energy projects and intends to apply for federal loan guarantees for such power plants that were included in the recently enacted stimulus package.

The deal, coming less than two weeks after BrightSource Energy signed a 1,300-megawatt power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison, shows that despite the financial crisis the market for renewable energy is showing renewed signs of life.

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cpuc-rps-report

California quadrupled the amount of renewable energy it installed in 2008 over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday by the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

The 500 megawatts of green electricity brought online last year represents 60% of all renewable energy generation built since 2002, when California mandated that the state’s investor-owned utilities obtain 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010. In November, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order raising the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, to 33% by 2020.

“Clearly, 2008 was a turning point for the RPS program and contracted projects are beginning to deliver in large numbers,” the California Public Utilities Commission report stated.

The CPUC in 2008 approved projects that would generate 2,812 megawatts of renewable energy for California’s Big Three utilities – PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE). Impressive numbers but the utilities have acknowledged they are unlikely to meet their renewable energy targets by the 2010 deadline because it takes years to get solar and wind projects online and some will inevitably fail. For instance, the financial crisis has raised questions about just how many of the Big Solar power plants the utilities are relying on will actually get built, though the $787 billion stimulus packaged signed into law Tuesday by President Barack Obama has brightened the solar industry’s prospects.

California increasingly is depending on solar energy to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the state’s landmark 2006 global warming law. According to regulators, utilities received 30% more bids for solar power projects in 2008 than in the previous year while wind farm proposals dropped by half and “very few” geothermal tenders were filed.

The fact that utilities received 24,000 megawatts’ worth of renewable energy bids last year (more than enough, if built, to meet the 33% renewable energy target) speaks to the frothy state of the market. But before solar power plants and other green energy projects can go online they face years-long and often contentious environmental reviews, while a lack of transmission lines to bring all this electricity from the desert to coastal cities remains the green elephant in the room.

Meanwhile, regulators are reviewing a policy change that would seem to undercut the state’s goal of encouraging utilities to generate more renewable energy. On March 12 Feb. 20,the California Public Utilities Commission will consider whether to allow utilities to buy so-called tradable renewable energy credits, or TRECs, from other entities  to meet their green electricity mandates. Such credits are associated with the electricity generated by wind farms, solar power plants and other projects and can be bought and sold. In other words, if a utility finds itself falling short of its renewable energy goals – or just doesn’t want to spend the money procuring green power – it could buy TRECs on the open market.

Green Wombat is awaiting a reply from the utilities commission on whether California utilities could purchase TRECs generated by out-of-state projects – which, of course, would do nothing to reduce the state’s own greenhouse gas emissions.  UPDATE: CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper says that utilities will be able to buy out-of-state TRECs as long as they meet California’s eligibility requirements.

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solara
Images: BrightSource Energy

A ray of sunshine amid the economic gloom: While some solar companies struggle through the downturn, BrightSource Energy on Wednesday morning announced the world’s largest solar energy deal to date – a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison with 1,300 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.

That’s more than twice the size of the previous world’s-biggest-solar-deal, a 553-megawatt power purchase agreement in 2007 between California utility PG&E and Israel’s Solel. BrightSource itself last year inked a deal to provide PG&E (PCG) with 500-megawatts of solar electricity with an option for 400 megawatts more.

“This proves the energy industry is recognizing the role solar thermal will play as we de-carbonize our energy supply,”  BrightSource CEO John Woolard said Wednesday at a press conference.  “We believe now more than ever the time is right for large-scale solar thermal.”

solarhOakland-based BrightSource will build seven solar power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX) using its “power tower” technology. Thousands of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a tower. The intense heat creates steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity. BrightSource has built a prototype power plant in Israel.

BrightSource has raised more than $160 million from a blue-chip group of investors that includes Google (GOOG), Morgan Stanley (MS) and VantagePoint Venture Partners as well as a clutch of oil giants – Chevron (CVX), BP (BP) and Norway’s StatoilHydro.

If all the solar power plants are built, BrightSource’s deal with Southern California Edison will generate enough electricity to power about 845,000 homes. The agreement is a vote of confidence in the solar industry at a time when the financial crisis has forced BrightSource rivals like OptiSolar to lay off workers while Ausra retools its strategy to focus on supplying solar thermal technology to power plant developers rather than building projects itself.

Given the economic collapse, why are these massive megawatt deals still being done? First, California utilities are under tight deadlines to ratchet up the amount of electricity they obtain from renewable sources – 20% by the end of 2010 and 33% by 2020. Second, it costs nothing to sign a contract – no money has yet changed hands, and won’t unless the plants are built and begin producing electricity.

In fact, not a kilowatt of juice has been generated from the more than 5,000 megawatts of Big Solar contracts signed over the past four years by California’s three investor owned utilities (the third being San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) ).  Still, a long-term utility contract is key for a startup like BrightSource to obtain the billions in financing required to build large-scale solar power plants. The terms of utility contracts – such as the cost of the solar electricity produced – are closely held secrets but are worth billions, if a 2008 power purchase agreement between Spanish solar company Abengoa and utility Arizona Public Service is any guide.

A significant hurdle for BrightSource – and many other solar developers – is the expansion of the transmission grid to connect remote power plants to cities. BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs says the company has 4,200 megawatts of solar power plant projects under development.

The Southern California Edison deal is something of a homecoming for American-Israeli solar pioneer Arnold Goldman, BrightSource’s founder and chairman. In the 1980s, during the first solar boom, his Luz International built nine solar power plants in the Mojave. Those plants, most are now operated by FPL (FPL), continue to provide electricity to Edison.

The first BrightSource solar farm for Edison is expected to go online in early 2013. It’s a 100 megawatt power plant part of BrightSource’s Ivanpah complex to be built on federal land on the California-Nevada border in the Mojave Desert. That plant is currently wending its way through a complex state and federal licensing process.

Just how complex was illustrated by a meeting Green Wombat attended Tuesday in Sacramento, where a roomful of state and federal officials spent hours discussing the environmental impact of a 750-megawatt solar power plant to be built by Phoenix’s Stirling Energy Systems for San Diego Gas & Electric that would plant 30,000 solar dishes in the desert. A second Stirling solar farm will be built for Southern California Edision. When the deals were announced in 2005, they were the world’s largest at the time.

PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee recently said his utility will begin directly investing in solar power projects. On Wednesday, Southern California Edison renewable energy executive Stuart Hemphill said Edison would consider requests from solar power developers to take ownership stakes in their projects but prefers to sign power purchase agreements.

“We do see solar as the large untapped resource, particularly in Southern California,” said Hemphill.

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csi-report

The other day I ran into Danny Kennedy, president of solar installation company Sungevity, on the playground as we were picking up our kids at Malcolm X Elementary (we live in Berkeley). I had spent the week chronicling layoffs at various solar and wind companies so it was with a bit of trepidation that Green Wombat asked Danny how business was going at at Sungevity.  “Great,” he replied as I quizzed him about the impact of the recession. “We’re as busy as ever.”

Apparently so. A report released Wednesday by the California Public Utilities Commission shows that residential and commercial rooftop solar installations in the Golden State more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year to 158 megawatts. What’s more, a record-breaking number of applications to participate in California’s $3 billion solar rebate program were filed in December as the drumbeat of bad economic news grew deafening and the state’s unemployment rate hit 9%.

Are Californians being crazily contrarian? While one would think that a $30,000 solar array would be one of those luxuries most people would put on the back burner in bad times, there are some solid economic reasons for the surge. First, rebates for solar systems under the California Solar Initiative get less lucrative in 2009 as incentives fall as the amount of installed solar rises.  Then in October Congress lifted the $2,000 cap on the federal tax credit on solar arrays, allowing homeowners and businesses to take a 30% tax credit on systems installed after Dec. 31.  Add in the state rebate and the cost of a solar system in California suddenly fell by half.

“The surge in applications occurring in the fourth quarter of 2008 is particularly noteworthy given the slowdown in the economy that occurred during the same time period,” the report’s authors noted. “In addition to environmental benefits such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, it appears that solar energy is benefiting California by serving as an economic bright spot in the economy.”

And therein lies some lessons as the U.S. Congress debates how to promote green jobs. Two years into the California Solar Initiative, the taxpayers’ investment of $775 million in solar rebates has yielded $5 billion in private investment in solar projects and rapidly expanded the state’s renewable energy industry, according to the report. That’s helped create strong solar companies like solar cell maker SunPower (SPWRA) and markets for thin-film solar companies such as First Solar (FSLR). The decade-long program is on track to achieve its target of 3,000 megawatts of rooftop solar and in the first two years of the program more solar has been installed in California than in the previous 25 years.

While California regulators expect the pace to continue in 2009, the big unknown is how many homeowners and business owners will drop out of the program and cancel their applications if the economy continues to deteriorate rapidly this year. The current dropout rate is 15%, according to the report.

“We are hopeful that many of those pending projects will move forward,” Molly Tirpak Sterkel, who oversees the California Solar Initiative for the utilities commission, told Green Wombat. “We’re also cognizant of the economy and economic forces that may pose a threat to those installations.”

Demand for solar is far stronger in Northern California than in sunny SoCal. Northern California utility PG&E’s (PCG) customers have installed more than twice the megawatts of solar than Southern California Edison (EIX) customers. And the report notes that while applications for commercial arrays in PG&E’s territory rose 71% between April and December 2008, they fell 23% in Southern California Edison’s area. San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), which covers a much smaller service area, saw applications triple for residential solar arrays.

Sterkel says it is unclear why Northern Californians are going solar at a much faster rate than their southern counterpart, but it may be due to differences in electricity pricing and more mature solar markets in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. “There’s just that many more solar companies with experience, installations and sales channels, ” she says.

Solar panels seem to be sprouting from Bay Area rooftops like California poppies after a late winter rain. In Berkeley, the city has launched a program that pays for residential and business solar arrays upfront and let owners pay the cost back over 20 years through an annual assessment on their property taxes.

Which also may explain why I seem to be seeing more of those Sungevity signs around town.

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With Big Solar thermal power plants bogged down in bureaucracy and facing environmental and financial hurdles, utilities are turning to smaller-scale thin-film solar stations that can be built in a matter of months.

In late December, PG&E (PCG), for instance, signed a 20-year contract for electricity generated  from a 10-megawatt thin-film solar power plant in Nevada owned by energy giant Sempra (SRE) that was officially dedicated on Thursday. The solar farm was built by First Solar (FSLR) in a scant six months. Meanwhile, the utility’s nearly two gigawatts worth of deals with solar thermal power companies won’t start producing power for another two years at the earliest. (Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric signed agreements with solar dish developer Stirling Energy Systems for 1.75 gigawatts in 2005 and those projects are just now beginning to move through the regulatory approval process.) And the financial crisis has made it more difficult for solar thermal developers to obtain the billions of dollars needed to finance the construction of a massive megawatt power plant.

Solar thermal power plants typically use miles of mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine. Photovoltaic (or PV) solar farms essentially take solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. (Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing layers of photovoltaic materials on glass or flexible materials.)

“In terms of construction, photovoltaic tends to have a much faster development and construction track,” Roy Kuga, PG&E’s vice president for energy supply, told Green Wombat. “There is a segment of mid-sized projects – in the two to 20 megawatt size – where PV shows a distinct advantage in that market. There’s a huge potential for the PV market to expand.”

That’s good news for companies like First Solar – the Tempe, Ariz.-based company backed by the Walton family that is often called the Google of solar for its stock price and market prowess – and SunPower (SPWRA), the Silicon Valley solar cell maker that’s moved into the power plant-building business.

The speed at which the Sempra-First Solar project went online owes much to the fact that it was built on the site of an existing fossil fuel power plant. “It was already permitted for power generation, transmission existed and it did not have to go through the laborious California permitting process,” says Reese Tisdale, a solar analyst with Emerging Energy Research. “As such, First Solar was able to essentially plug and play.”

Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, says he expects utilities increasingly to bet on smaller-scale photovoltaic farms to help meet state mandates to obtain a growing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Just this week, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee said his utility plans to invest in solar power plant projects rather than just buy the power they produce.

“I think a utility could easily integrate, technically and financially, 100 megawatts of PV,” Bullard says.  If something is falling behind on your big solar thermal projects, you can plug in PV. I think you’ll see more of this with California utilities and I expect to see it more in Florida and North Carolina. It’s a great runaround to issues of siting and transmission.”

That’s because in California photovoltaic power plants do not need approval from the California Energy Commission. And smaller-scale plants take up far less land and can be built close to existing transmission lines. Most large solar thermal power plants typically are planned for the Mojave Desert and require the construction of expensive power lines to connect them to the grid.

The modular nature of PV solar farms means they can begin generating electricity as each segment is completed while a solar thermal plant only goes online once the entire project is finished.

“Certainly there is a sweet spot in which the project is large enough to gain advantages of scale,” says Tisdale. “Also, these small-to-mid-size systems can be spread about a transmission network, instead of at one site.”

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photos: Energy Conversion Devices

As Detroit automakers shutter SUV and truck factories, the decades-long de-industrialization of the Midwest continues apace. But amid the idled assembly lines, a new wave of manufacturing has taken root as solar energy companies set up shop in the heartland.

Just in the past week, First Solar (FSLR) announced an expansion of its Ohio plant that makes thin-film solar panels. German company Flabeg will break ground on a factory outside Pittsburgh that will manufacture parabolic solar mirrors for large-scale solar power plants planned for the Southwest. Thin-film solar company Energy Conversion Devices (ENER), meanwhile, operates three factories in Michigan and is currently doubling the production capacity of one of its plants.

In fact, nearly all the United States’ current solar manufacturing capacity is in the Midwest, save for Silicon Valley company Ausra’s factory in Las Vegas. (Thin-film startup Nanosolar is building a factory in San Jose, Calif.)

“Our processes really require high productivity, so what makes it competitive here in the Midwest is that we have a great labor force that is eager to work and well-trained already,” ECD chief executive Mark Morelli told Green Wombat on Monday.

For instance, when appliance maker Electrolux shut down its Greenville, Mich., factory it left 2,700 workers unemployed in the same town where ECD is expanding its thin-film factory (see photos). The company also has recruited top executives from the ever-shrinking auto industry.

“We do a test of the available labor pool and hire the cream of the crop,” Morelli says.

Just as important are a plethora of state tax breaks and grants to retrain industrial workers for the green tech economy.

Although 70 percent of ECD’s flexible solar laminate panels are sold to European customers, Morelli anticipates the U.S. market will take off, with domestic manufacturers garnering a competitive advantage.

That all depends on whether Congress extends a crucial investment tax credit that expires this year and the policies of the next administration in Washington. Even so, demand for solar cells is expected to spike, especially given the recent unveiling of Big Solar projects by California utilities. Southern California Edison (EIX), for instance, is installing 250-megawatts’ worth of solar panels on commercial rooftops while PG&E (PCG) this month announced contracts to buy 800 megawatts of electricity from two photovoltaic power plants, including 500-megawatt thin-film solar farm being built by OptiSolar.

“As utilities begin to embrace distributed power generation, these type of things play into our natural advantage,” says Morelli, referring to his company’s lightweight solar panels that are especially suited for large rooftop arrays.

Of course, a handful of solar factories are not going to revive the Midwest’s industrial fortunes. (First Solar, for instance, operates factories in Germany and Malaysia, and Morelli doesn’t rule out locating manufacturing overseas.) But imagine a national policy that promotes the wide adoption of solar and the expansion of manufacturing in the rustbelt states becomes increasingly attractive. Shipping solar panels and mirror arrays from halfway around the world starts to make much less environmental and financial sense.

ECD’s proximity to the auto industry has already paid off. After installing solar arrays on two of General Motors (GM)’s California facilities, it won a contract in July to build a 12-megawatt rooftop array – the world’s largest by orders of magnitude – at a GM assembly plant in Spain.

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