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Posts Tagged ‘Stirling Energy Systems’

In Monday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about the migration of renewable energy firms from California and the Southwest to the nation’s industrial heartland to tap the down-and-out region’s manufacturing might:

At a recent solar energy conference in Anaheim, economic development officials from Ohio talked up a state that seemed far removed from the solar panels and high-tech devices that dominated the convention floor.

Ohio, long known for its smokestack auto plants and metal-bending factories, would be an ideal place for green technology companies to set up shop, they said.

“People don’t traditionally think of Ohio when they think of solar,” said Lisa Patt-McDaniel, director of Ohio’s economic development agency. But in fact, the Rust Belt goes well with the Green Belt, she said.

In years past, Sunbelt governors recruited Midwestern businesses to set up shop in their states, dangling tax breaks and the lure of a union-free workforce.

Now the tables have turned as solar start-ups, wind turbine companies and electric carmakers from California and the Southwest migrate to the nation’s industrial heartland. They’re looking to tap its manufacturing might and legions of skilled workers, hit hard by the near-collapse of the United States auto industry and eager for work.

For all of green tech’s futuristic sheen, solar power plants and wind farms are made of much of the same stuff as automobiles: machine-stamped steel, glass and gearboxes.

That has renewable energy companies hitting the highway for Detroit and Northeastern industrial states, driven in part by the federal stimulus package’s incentives and buy-American mandates.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Stirling SunCatcher

photo: Tessera Solar

Another day, another Big Solar deal.

Tessera Solar on Wednesday said it will build a 1.5 megawatt Stirling solar dish power plant outside Phoenix to supply electricity to utility Salt River Project.

The announcement follows Tuesday’s spate of solar power plant deals. As I wrote in The New York Times, utility Southern California Edison (EIX) agreed to buy 550 megwatts of solar electricity that will be generated by two massive thin-film photovoltaic power plants to be built by First Solar (FSLR). Later in the day on Tuesday, First Solar said that it had struck a deal with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to supply 55 megawatts from a PV farm to be constructed in Southern California’s Imperial Valley.

Tessera Solar is the development arm for Stirling Energy Systems, the maker of the SunCatcher solar dish. The company is developing two huge California projects — a 850-megawatt, 34,000-dish solar farm to be built on 8,230 acres to supply power to Southern California Edison and a 750-megawatt power plant complex for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE).

The 60-dish Salt River Project solar farm is but a fraction of the California solar farms’ size but will serve as a demonstration project for Tessera’s technology.

Most notable, given the years-long licensing process for big solar power projects in places like California, Tessera plans to break ground next month and bring what it calls the Maricopa Solar plant online in January 2010.

Tessera will lease the project site from Salt River Project and sell the electricity to the utility under a 10-year power purchase agreement.

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eSolar Sierra

photo: eSolar

The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday began accepting applications for at least $3 billion in direct funding of renewable energy power plant projects.

The funding, part of the federal stimulus package, is in lieu of a 30 percent investment tax credit that green energy developers can take on their projects. Given that most solar and wind developers carry no tax liabilities, they have relied on investment banks and other investors to front the hundreds of millions and billions of dollars in financing needed for their projects in exchange for the tax credits. But as the economy tanked along with investment banks, demand for so-called tax equity partnerships evaporated.  Big Solar projects stalled and wind developers delayed turbine orders.

Curiously, the Department of Energy said on Friday that the $3 billion would fund some 5,000 projects. That works out to about $600,000 per power plant. But a single 250-megawatt solar power plant alone can cost more than a $1 billion and would thus soak up $300 million or 10% of the funding pool.

The question is, will DOE end up funding a few large-scale green energy projects that could start to give, say, the solar thermal industry economies of scale, or will it spend the money on hundreds of smaller renewable energy facilities?

That’s a crucial issue for solar developers like Tessera Solar/Stirling Energy Systems, eSolar and BrightSource Energy, which is backed 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.

Also left unsaid in the DOE’s announcement was the fact that renewable energy projects need to break ground by the end of 2010 to qualify for the direct funding. Which is why BrightSource, Nextera Energy (a subsidiary of utility giant FPL Group (FPL) ) and Tessera Solar are eager to expedite the lengthy California licensing process and get their projects approved before New Year’s Eve 2010 so they can put shovel to dirt and start shoveling cash into their coffers.

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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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Stirling Energy Systems Solar One project

image: URS

Green Wombat spent several months looking into allegations that California labor unions are using environmental laws to pressure  solar developers to hire union workers to build large-scale solar power plants. The story was published last Friday in The New York Times:

SACRAMENTO — When a company called Ausra filed plans for a big solar power plant in California, it was deluged with demands from a union group that it study the effect on creatures like the short-nosed kangaroo rat and the ferruginous hawk.

By contrast, when a competitor, BrightSource Energy, filed plans for an even bigger solar plant that would affect the imperiled desert tortoise, the same union group, California Unions for Reliable Energy, raised no complaint. Instead, it urged regulators to approve the project as quickly as possible.

One big difference between the projects? Ausra had rejected demands that it use only union workers to build its solar farm, while BrightSource pledged to hire labor-friendly contractors.

As California moves to license dozens of huge solar power plants to meet the state’s renewable energy goals, some developers contend they are being pressured to sign agreements pledging to use union labor. If they refuse, they say, they can count on the union group to demand costly environmental studies and deliver hostile testimony at public hearings.

If they commit at the outset to use union labor, they say, the environmental objections never materialize.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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solara

photo: BrightSource Energy

As the Nevada legislature debates extending tax breaks for large-scale solar power plants, a new report finds that ramping up solar development in the Silver State could produce thousands of good-paying green jobs while generating nearly $11 billion in economic benefits.

The study from San Francisco-based non-profit Vote Solar concludes that 2,000 megawatts’ worth of big solar thermal and photovoltaic farms — needed to meet Nevada’s electricity demand — would result in 5,900 construction jobs a year during the plants’ building phase, 1,200 permanent jobs and half a billion dollars in tax revenues.

“It is likely that such an investment in solar generating facilities could bring solar and related manufacturing to Nevada,” the reports authors wrote. “The economic impact of such manufacturing development is not included in this analysis, but would add significant additional benefits.”

Vote Solar’s job projections are based on an economic model developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to project the impact of solar trough power plants, the most common, if dated, type of Big Solar technology.

The different solar technologies set to come online in the next couple of years could change that equation. No doubt thousands of jobs will be generated by Big Solar but just how many will depend on the mix of solar thermal and photovoltaic power plants that ultimately come online. New technologies like BrightSource Energy’s “power tower,” Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector and Stirling Energy Systems’s solar dish may generate similar numbers of jobs. But then there’s eSolar’s power tower solar farms – which uses fields of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun on a water-filled boiler, creating steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.  eSolar’s small and prefabricated heliostat arrays cut out much of the skilled labor typically needed on such projects as they can be installed by two workers using a wrench.

Photovoltaic farms essentially take rooftop solar panels and put them on the ground and thus don’t require highly skilled laborers to build turbine power blocks, miles of piping and other infrastructure needed in solar thermal facilities. (They also can be built much more quickly than a solar thermal plant, which is why utilities have been striking deals with companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA) for PV farms.)

A second report released this week — from the Large-Scale Solar Association, an industry group — found that Nevada could gain an edge over Arizona and California in luring solar power plant builders if it extended and sweetened tax incentives.  The three states form something of a golden triangle of solar, offering the nation’s most intense sunshine and vast tracts of government-owned desert land that are being opened up for solar development.

The timing of the reports was no accident. The Nevada Legislature held hearings earlier this week on extending tax breaks for Big Solar that expire in June, and Vote Solar’s utility-scale solar policy director, Jim Baak, went to Carson City to lobby legislators, hoping to head off one proposal to tax renewable energy production.

The Large-Scale Solar report, prepared by a Las Vegas economic consulting firm, found that if legislators let the tax breaks sunset, as it were, the developer of a 100-megawatt solar power plant would pay $55.1 million in taxes in Nevada during the first 15 years of the facility’s operation compared to $26.1 million in Arizona and between $36.1 and $37.9 million in California. If the current incentives are kept, tax payments drop to $25.1 million. A bigger tax break would reduce the tax burden to $14.3 million.

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The risky nature of Big Solar projects has been driven home with California regulators’ move to kill a controversial $1.3 billion transmission line that would have connected massive solar power stations in the desert to coastal cities.

“These projects are unlikely to proceed,” wrote Jean Vieth, an administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission, in a ruling rejecting San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink transmission line.

Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems in 2005 scored a contract to provide SDG&E (SRE) with up to 900 megawatts of electricity to be generated by as many as 36,000 solar dishes. A few months later, the utility filed an application to build the Sunrise Powerlink, a new transmission line to connect the Stirling power plants and other renewable energy projects to the coast.

But the utility’s proposal to build 150-foot-high transmission towers right through wilderness areas of Anza-Borrego State Park, home to a host of protected species, triggered a long-running fight with green groups that generated an 11,000-page environmental impact report. On Halloween, Vieth issued a ruling that found that despite state mandates to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental impact of the transmission project was frightening.

“The potentially high economic costs to ratepayers and the potential implications for our [greenhouse gas] policy objectives do not justify the severe environmental damage that any of the transmission proposals would cause,” concluded Vieth in a 265-page decision.

The battle isn’t over — the public utilities commission will vote in December whether to accept the judge’s ruling. They will also consider an alternative decision issued by a commissioner assigned to review the case. That decision would let SDG&E build a transmission line along a different route under certain conditions.

But the case highlights the conflicting environmental values that will dog solar power projects. In other words, just what trade-offs are we willing to make to secure a planet-friendly source of energy? In this case, the judge ruled that to avoid the environmental damage of a massive new transmission line, the preferred alternative is to build more fossil-fuel plants close to San Diego along with a smaller-scale solar power station and a huge increase in rooftop solar arrays. The judge acknowledged that such an alternative “would cause substantially more GHG emissions than the proposed project and other transmission proposals.”

The judge’s second preferred alternative was to build only renewable-energy projects near San Diego that would not require big new transmission lines. Some Sunrise Powerlink opponents argue that San Diego has enough roof space to generative massive amounts of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels. (The cost of such an undertaking was left unsaid.)

Public Utilities Commissioner Dian Grueneich’s alternative decision would allow San Diego Gas & Electric to build Sunrise Powerlink along a more environmentally-benign route if the utility could prove that most of the transmission line would carry renewable energy so as to offset the 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases emitted during its construction. “Reliance on a single 900-megawatt contract (the Stirling Energy Systems contract) is too risky,” she wrote.

So where does this leave Stirling? COO Bruce Osborn didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But earlier this year, he told Green Wombat that even if Sunrise Powerlink was killed, there’s enough existing transmission capacity to carry electricity from the power plant’s first 300-megawatt phase. Stirling also has a 20-year contract to supply up to 850 megawatts of electricity to utility Southern California Edison (EIX), a deal not contingent on Sunrise Powerlink.

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