Todd Woody has an interview at Yale Environment 360 with the CEO of solar thermal power company Brightsource - In California’s Mojave Desert, Solar-Thermal Projects Take Off.
This week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and other dignitaries gathered in the Mojave Desert to officially break ground on BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in nearly two decades.
BrightSource is one of a half-dozen big solar farms, with a combined electricity-generating capacity of 2,829 megawatts, licensed by the California Energy Commission over the past two months. By year’s end, California and federal regulators expect to approve additional projects that will produce a total of 4,143 megawatts. At peak output, that’s the equivalent of several nuclear power plants and more than seven times the solar capacity installed in the United States last year.
The approval of the projects comes after years of environmental review and controversies over the installations’ impact on water, wildlife, and fragile desert landscapes. The power plants licensed so far will cover some 39 square miles of desert land with a variety of new and old solar thermal technologies. Unlike rooftop photovoltaic panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal uses the sun to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating industrial turbines.
BrightSource’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah project, located just over the California border, 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, is the world’s largest solar-thermal power plant project currently under construction. The company, led by CEO John Woolard, received a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy to build the project, which will deploy 347,000 large mirrors that will surround three towers on 3,500 acres of federal land. The mirrors will focus the sun on a water-filled boiler that sits atop the tower to create high-temperature, high-pressure steam.
Woolard, 45, came to BrightSource as chief executive in 2004 after co-founding Silicon Energy, an energy efficiency software company, and stints at California utility PG&E, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and VantagePoint Venture Partners, a leading Silicon Valley green tech venture capital firm. ...
e360: BrightSource’s Ivanpah project is not only the first large-scale solar thermal project to break ground, it is the first to deploy a new power tower technology. Why is that significant?
Woolard: Our team was part of building older trough plants and you learn a lot. If you take a power tower, you get higher temperatures and pressures. That gives you higher thermo-to-electrical conversion efficiency. Think of that as more efficiency, less waste, lower cost. Because of that, you need fewer mirrors, less solar field, and you have a more efficient design.
The other gets down to how you actually build on the land. If you take the older trough designs or anything with a lot of mirrors, [it] would degrade the land. It’s more damaging from a soil and runoff perspective.
The big [problem] is water. What is the world going to look like over the next 20, 30, 40 years? Water in the desert is going to become a much more challenging proposition. So we’ve gotten water usage down to a minimum — the lowest of anybody in the world, basically. ...
e360: While regulators have tried to put big solar projects on the fast track, power line projects to connect solar power plants to the grid remain in the slow lane. How big an obstacle will transmission constraints be for the projects already approved, as well as those in the pipeline?
Woolard: For our projects, we have what’s called LGIA — large generator interconnection agreements — that give us transmission to deliver the power into the California grid. For future projects, you get your LGIAs “x” months in advance of your financial close, so we’re working now on what the transmission is for which sites.
It’s about how you move around and adjust, given everything from appropriate environmental concerns to transmission. We can move within the existing [transmission] system, but the existing system is broken and dysfunctional. In the last decade we’ve done 12,000 miles of interstate natural gas pipelines and 668 miles of interstate [electricity] transmission.
A national renewable energy standard [requiring a percentage of electricity to come from green sources] is hollow without the transmission. It’s like engaging in interstate commerce without the highways and rails. To me transmission is the enabler of a free market. It should be the most bipartisan, universally accepted effort we make as a country because it enables people to compete, it enables prices to go down.