Thursday, May 01, 2008

Cheaper than Coal

The other day, we had the folks from E Solar into our shop to show us their innovative approach to building solar plants. Their idea is to take the central power tower approach that was developed by the University of Houston but to downsize it a little, and to value engineer it.

After the presentation, I left the meeting with a pretty positive impression of their approach to making solar electricity.

Well, apparently Google thinks so too, because they just gave a lot of money to them.

Here's part of the story, thanks to the Energy Blog:

eSolar Receives Funding for 33MW Modular Solar Power Plants

eSolar™, a producer of modular solar thermal power plants, announced (pdf) that is has closed $130 million in funding from Idealab,, Oak Investment Partners, and other investors for the construction and deployment of pre-fabricated power plants. Their distributed solar thermal plants achieve economies of scale at 33 MW, and are modularly scaled to fit the needs of large and small utilities.

"The eSolar™ power plant is based on mass manufactured components, and designed for rapid construction, uniform modularity, and unlimited scalability. Rather than over-engineering the solution, eSolar’s smart scalable solar architecture targets what we see as the four key business obstacles facing the sector: price, scalability, rapid deployment, and grid impact." -- Asif Ansari, CEO of eSolar.

From their website:

The economic tipping point, for solar power, occurs when the capital cost of the solar field is less than the capital costs and fuel costs of the traditional system. To address this issue, eSolar has developed a modular power plant architecture designed to take advantage of mass manufactured components at every level.

eSolar has designed a solar field layout that minimizes installation time and cost. By employing a repeating structure and a revolutionary calibration system, eSolar plants come on line quickly . . . Utilizing very low wind profile heliostats, eSolar provides higher reliability in all wind conditions, lower risk of wind damage, and more power plant up-time.

Their power plants are structured on a 33 MW base modules, scalable to over 500 MW facilities, with energy prices that are competitive with fossil fuels, consisting of several thermal receiver towers, each with a field of heliostats. Each module is a complete power plant, consisting of several thermal receiver towers, each with a field of heliostat mirrors, and a central power block with steam turbine and generator.

Solar heliostats were designed from the ground up to minimize every possible cost. Their heliostats are designed to fit efficiently into shipping containers to keep transportation costs low, and they are pre-assembled at the factory to minimize on-site labor. more

There is a lot to this technology that I like.

The basic technology has been proven for many years in Barstow at Solar One , and now it's being revived in Spain. Since it's a steam plant, it can be co-fired with other fuels, renewable or otherwise. The energy density is also good, perhaps well over a 100 MWs per section. And the redundantcy of using smaller towers and separate heliostat fields will help in keeping these plants up and running while other parts of the plant are under repair or being maintained.

However, these kinds of solar plants need direct sun. They don't work with diffuse light, so they need to be in the arid deserts where clouds go to die not form. Often these high resource areas are a good distance away from where the load is. (This is obviously not the case in LA or Las Vegas or Phoenix.)

And, because they are thermal plants, they need water, lots of water, and sometimes water is hard to find in the desert.

Solid State Solar plants don't need water, and they don't need direct beam to work.

That said however, I think these plants may have a real future.

Apparently Dr. Brilliant thinks so too.

"With talented technologists, great partners and significant investments, we hope to rapidly push forward. Our goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal. We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades." Larry Page, Google co-founder

This technology is not just cheaper than coal.

It's way smarter.

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