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Home > Feature Articles > Alternative Energy Solutions > Solar Energy

Oakland's BrightSource solar thermal power concept for Mojave

BrightSource Energy's tower solar collector in the Mojave Desert to supply up to 900 megawatts of clean energy to California in the next decade.

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Arnold Goldman's company plans to build his innovative "sunflower" on a tower solar collector in the Mojave Desert to supply up to 900 megawatts of clean energy to California in the next decade. A water boiler will soon start producing high-pressure steam from these solar collectors.

Goldman is a UCLA- and USC-schooled Israeli entrepreneur who built the world's leading solar thermal power company, Luz International, in the 1980s, then watched it go bankrupt in 1991 as oil prices dropped and California decided not to renew property tax credits for solar producers.

His new company, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., signed a power-buying agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric in April; it is believed to be the largest in the history of solar power and would produce enough electricity to power 540,000 homes each year.

In May, the company raised $115 million from a high-profile group of investors including Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google Inc., and BP Alternative Energy.

"This is the highest-performing, lowest-cost solar thermal energy system in the world today," Goldman told guests, including investors and potential suppliers, at Thursday's inauguration of his pilot solar field in Dimona, Israel.

The company secured its first major infusion of venture capital in 2006 from VantagePoint Venture Partners, which remains BrightSource's largest equity holder.

The 1980s system used long troughs of curved mirrors, guided by computers, to heat synthetic oil passing through vacuum-sealed tubes to 735 degrees. The oil heated water to produce steam and run an electric turbine. Goldman's company built nine solar power stations using that system in the Mojave Desert from 1984 to 1990. They still operate, producing 350 megawatts of power.

New Generation of Solar Thermal

The new technology will employ several "power towers" at each commercial plant. An array of hundreds of mirrors known as heliostats will reflect sunlight onto a boiler atop each tower, and the resulting steam will power a turbine.

BrightSource executives say the power-tower technology is more efficient in several ways: The heliostats are cheaper to build and operate. They heat water directly, with no need for oil. And they achieve a higher concentration of sunlight, higher temperatures (up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and higher steam pressure.

That should make solar electricity competitive in price with that produced by gas-powered turbines as long as Congress prolongs the tax breaks for solar producers, said John Woolard, president of BrightSource.

Justin Adams, venture business unit leader at BP Alternative Energy, says BrightSource faces several hurdles in making its technology work.

"They have to show they can manage steam at such high pressure 60 meters above the ground," Adams said. "They have to make sure everything is minutely controlled in terms of focusing all those mirrors, and they have to do this over a period of years without major outages."

SOURCE: LA TIMES, "BrightSource's novel solar thermal power concept for California heats up"



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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