Forget Red China. It’s Green China these days—at least when it comes to making big renewable deals.
eSolar power plant. eSolar power plant. Friday night, a Chinese developer and eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., signed an agreement to build solar thermal power plants in the Mongolian desert over the next decade. These plants would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity. It’s the largest solar thermal project in the world and follows another two-gigawatt deal China struck in October with Arizona’s First Solar for a massive photovoltaic power complex. Altogether, the eSolar and First Solar projects would produce, at peak output, the amount of electricity generated by about four large nuclear power plants, lighting up millions of Chinese homes.
Is China the new California, the engine powering the green tech revolution?
Yes and no. When it comes to technological and entrepreneurial innovation, Beijing lags Silicon Valley (and Austin, Boston, and Los Angeles)—for now. But as a market, China is likely to drive demand for renewable energy, giving companies like eSolar the opportunity to scale up their technology and drive down costs.
[We’ll pause here to state the obvious: China’s investment in renewable energy and other green technologies is miniscule compared to the resources devoted to its continued building of coal-fired power plants and efforts to secure dirty oil shale supplies in Canada and elsewhere.]
“All the learning from this partnership will help us in the United States,” Bill Gross, eSolar’s founder and chairman, told me. “I think as soon as the economy improves in the rest of the world and banks start lending, there will be a lot of competition in the U.S. and Europe. But, until then, China has the money and the demand.”
In a one-party state, a government official saying, “Make it so,” can remove obstacles to any given project and allocate resources for its development. Construction of the first eSolar project, a 92-megawatt power plant, in a 66-square-mile energy park in northern China, is set to begin this year
“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” says Gross, who is licensing eSolar’s technology to a Chinese firm, Penglai Electric, which will manage the construction of the power plants. Another Chinese company will open and operate the projects.
For the past two-and-a-half years in California, meanwhile, the state’s first new solar thermal power plant in two decades has been undergoing licensing as part of an extensive environmental review process. The goal is to maximize production of carbon-free electricity from BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project in the Mojave Desert while minimizing its impact on fragile ecosystems.
The end game begins Monday in Sacramento at a public hearing where BrightSource will face off with environmental groups that argue the project will harm the imperiled desert tortoise and destroy the habitat for a host of plants and animals.
In contrast, it was only six months ago that executives from Penglai Electric first contacted eSolar as they scoured the world for a technology to use in that nation’s first big foray into solar thermal power.
China leads the world in production of photovolatic panels like those found on residential and commercial rooftops, but the country has had little experience with solar thermal technology, which uses arrays of mirrors called heliostats to heat a liquid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.
China might be making headlines but there is still a steady trickle of new solar project announcements from the US - Solar project proposed north of Reno.
A large solar energy project is being proposed by Vidler Water Co. on up to 1,000 acres north of Reno. Project backers say construction could start next year and be phased in over the next 10 to 15 years if approved by county and regional officials, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported. The proposed 100-megawatt farm would be among the largest in the nation, officials said.
Nevertheless, US cleantech investment has dropped from the previous year;s boom levels - Clean Technology Investing Slips, but Could Be Worse, Report Finds.
In a flurry of deal making bolstered by government subsidies for renewable energy, venture capitalists invested $5.6 billion in green technology companies worldwide in 2009, according to a preliminary report released Wednesday by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte.
That represents a 33 percent drop from the $8.5 billion invested in 2008, a reflection, the report said, of the global economic downturn. But the overall amount of venture capital fared much worse, retreating to 2003 levels, according to the report, whereas clean technology investments were on track to match 2007 levels.
“In 2009, clean-tech went from a niche category to become the dominant category in venture capital investing,” said Dallas Kachan, managing director of the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco market research and consulting firm. “Clean-tech continued to outpace software and biotech.”
The report’s preliminary survey showed that there were 557 deals in the clean technology space in 2009, compared to 567 deals in 2008 and 488 in 2007.
Solar companies secured $1.2 billion in 2009 — 21 percent of the total and the largest share of venture funding. The biggest deal of the year also went to a solar company, Silicon Valley’s Solyndra, which raised $198 million at the same time it secured a $535 million federal loan guarantee to build a solar module factory.