BrightSource Energy, based out of Oakland, California, is also showing how it’s done. The firm leverages the sun’s incoming energy by focusing the sunlight onto mirrors which then reflect the light onto 2,200-ton boilers built 339 feet in the air.[ii] The extremely hot steam then powers turbines to generate electricity. In 2013, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System went live on the grid in Nipton, California where it produces 377 megawatts of power supplying about 140,000 homes..2 The firm also reports that the plant reduces the U.S. carbon-footprint by 400,000 tons per year.[iii]
The firm has contracts with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric to build 14 plants across the Southwestern United States by 2017.[iv] Among other investors, BrightSource has attracted VantagePoint, BP, Morgan Stanley, and Google.4 Along with its U.S. operations, the firm operates in China, Europe, Israel, and South Africa managing over 20 gigawatts of solar, wind, and conventional power worldwide.[v] An energy amount equivalent to roughly 40 coal-fired plants.
One of the major challenges for renewable energy in connecting to the traditional grid is their ability to provide base load power. Traditional sources provide start and stop power quickly, at any time of day, and any day of the year. Photovoltaics are less attractive in many places for those very reasons. Often times, scalability isn’t feasible in conjunction with the high initial costs. In the case of BrightSource Energy, adhering to 7 & 8 of the Hannover Principles has served the firm well. Photovoltaics and solar thermal both rely on natural energy flows. However, converting solar energy into electricity requires a solar inverter which converts the incoming DC into usable AC. Often times, solar inverters are among the most expensive components. By understanding the limitations of design, BrightSource Energy investors saw the industrial scale solar thermal technology as an opportunity to exploit the weaknesses of their potential renewable competitors.
Get Your Shine On
Economies of scale would suggest that with each solar thermal plant built, the firm’s initial costs would be driven down by repetition and improved practices. The firm’s first industrial scale solar thermal plant was built in Rotem, Israel in 2008.[vi] In 2011, the firm filed an Application for Certification with the California Energy Commission to build in Inyo County, CA while also piloting a project, in partnership with Chevron, using solar thermal to enhance oil recovery in Coalinga, CA. Ivanpah began operating in 2013. The firm has an opportunity to dominate the industrial solar thermal market in California; however, expired federal subsidies and delayed permitting have slowed their advancement. Should the firm stay and pursue cross-sector alliances in California or move the bulk of their operations overseas where the market is more accessible, but potentially less stable?
[i] Co-authored by Michael Aper, Master of Arts in Sustainability candidate 2015 at Wake Forest University
[ii] Diane Cardwell and Mathew L. Wald, “A Huge Solar Plant Opens, Facing Doubts About Its Future,” Energy and Management, The New York Times, February 13, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/business/energy-environment/a-big-solar-plant-opens-facing-doubts-about-its-future.html?_r=0 (accessed April 12, 2015)
[iii] BrightSource Energy, Inc., “Ivanpah,” 2015, http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/ivanpah-solar-project#.VSxY5dzF8-A (accessed April 12, 2015)
[iv] Adam Aston, Pete Engardio, and Joel Makower, “25 Companies to Watch in Energy Tech,” Bloomberg Business, Bloomberg L.P., 2015 http://www.bloomberg.com/ss/09/07/0714_sustainable_planet/6.htm (accessed April 12, 2015)
[v] BrightSource Energy, Inc., “Company,” 2015 http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/company#.VSxGC9zF8-A(accessed April 12, 2015)
[vi] BrightSource Energy, Inc., “SEDC,” 2015 http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/sedc#.VSxaUdzF8-A (accessed April 12, 2015)