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Energy Storage: a Poor Idea for Solar-Thermal Power Project

Ucilia Wang: February 23, 2009, 7:48 PM


Solar-thermal power supporters often cite energy storage as a benefit the technology brings. But it may not be practical for commercial deployment. At least not now. 

Charles Ricker, senior vice president of marketing and business development at BrightSource Energy, said the company isn’t adding the energy storage component its projects because it doesn’t make financial sense.

“We have the ability to add storage, but we are not doing that in any of the projects we are doing,??? said Ricker during a panel at the UC Berkeley Energy Symposium Monday. “The return on investment isn’t there.??? The Oakland, Calif.-based companies have deals to supply solar power to PG&E and Southern California Edison. 

Increasing the size of the solar-thermal power plant is a better way to design a profitable project, Ricker said.

Solar-thermal power plants are meant to be large-scale projects that, partly because of their sizes, can cost lower to build and operate than projects using other types of solar technologies. Unlike a power plant using solar panels, a solar-thermal power plant requires a lot more land for the array of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight for generating steam, which is then fed to a generator to produce electricity.

During that process, the heat used for steam generation can be stored in a tank containing materials such as molten salt, which remains a liquid when heated above 430-degree Fahrenheit. The salt can be pumped to generate steam at night to run the generator. This process can keep a solar-thermal power plant operating when the sun isn’t shining, a feature that sets this type of solar power plant design apart from solar panel-based systems (attaching batteries is too expensive).

But adding the storage component doesn’t make financial sense at this time, Ricker said, because the most lucrative way to make money from solar is to supply the power when utilities need it the most. That would be in the early afternoon when it’s hot and the air conditioning is on full blast. Power producers can sell electricity at a premium during peak hours. 

“A lot of companies are talking about solar as a baseload plant,??? said Ricker, referring to the idea that a power plant can meet the continuous energy demand of the market it serves. “We don’t see that.???


Sen. Reid: Feds Should Trump States in Building the Smart Grid

Jeff St. John: February 23, 2009, 1:32 PM
When it comes to using billions of federal stimulus dollars to build out a "smart" electricity distribution grid, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn't want state regulators standing in the way. That's the gist of comment the Nevada Democrat made at a Washington D.C. clean energy meeting Monday, according to Reuters. Reid plans to introduce energy legislation on Thursday to speed the building of transmission infrastructure to bring remote solar-thermal, wind and geothermal power sources to population centers — and the bill would, among other things, seek to give the federal government the authority to build new transmission lines whether or not states like it, he said. While states will have a role to play in where transmission lines go, "there may come a time when the federal government has to step in" to overrule their objections, Reid said at the National Clean Energy Project, an event hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. (The event was a who's-who of energy and political big-wigs, including former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Texas oil billionaire and wind power and natural gas-fueled vehicle evangelist T. Boone Pickens, among others.) Reid's comments came the same day that Senator Jeff Bingaman said he wants to bring a separate energy bill to Congress in the next four to six weeks, one that would also deal with energy efficiency and incorporating renewable power into the nation's electricity system. The New Mexico Democrat is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would take up Reid's bill once it is introduced. Whether Bingaman envisions the same federal powers on siting transmission lines as Reid's comments appeared to call for wasn't clear, though Bingaman did say that he wants to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more authority to modernize the nation's power grid, according to Reuters. Given that the stimulus package signed into law by President Barack Obama last week contains $11 billion to upgrade power transmission and distribution infrastructure — and $4.5 billion in matching grants to be given out to smart grid-related projects — it might not be surprising to see lawmakers and policy chiefs looking to assert more control over state utility regulators as to where transmission lines go.  Energy Secretary Steven Chu said last week that he intends to push for federally funded smart grid efforts to adhere to standard technologies to avoid today's efforts from lapsing into obsolescence in the years to come. (It's likely that the National Institute for Standards and Technology, which received $10 million in the stimulus bill to develop a smart grid interoperabilty framework, will play a role in defining those standards).  The lobbying over grabbing a portion of the stimulus package's smart grid funding is already underway, with utilities like Pepco and Pacific Gas & Electric and companies like IBM and Cisco Systems seeking to position their smart grid projects for a piece of the funding, Bloomberg reported Monday.   

Beacon Power Lands AEP Contract

Jeff St. John: February 23, 2009, 10:59 AM
Beacon Power Corp. (NSDQ: BCON) has found a second customer — utility American Electric Power — interested in using its flywheel energy storage systems for so-called frequency regulation services. Beacon will build and operate a 1-megawatt facility for the utility's subsidiary Columbus Southern Power Company to help electricity grid operator PJM regulate the frequency of power over the transmission grid, the companies announced Monday. Like Beacon's existing project with ISO New England, flywheels will be used to keep grid electricity flowing at a constant 60 hertz, or cycles per second. Such frequency regulation takes up as much as 1 percent of all the power produced in North America, a need that's mostly met by fossil fuel-fired power plants responding to signals from grid operators. Thus, using flywheels instead could lead to big reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, according toa December study that Beacon commissioned looking at the potential effects of a 20-megawatt flywheel-based frequency regulation system. Of course, Beacon hasn't built a 20-megawatt frequency regulation system yet. In fact, the Tyngsboro, Mass.-based company recently scaled back its first project with ISO New England from 5 megawatts to 3 megawatts (see Beacon Power Seeks to Raise $4.1M). The company now operates a 1-megawatt pilot project for the grid operator, and is seeking a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a 20-megawatt frequency regulation plant in Stephentown, N.Y. Beacon has had a bit of a rough ride developing its flywheel technology, including a 2006 test malfunction that led to delays (see Beacon Picks Up Speed). In November it reported a third-quarter 2008 loss of $5.6 million on revenues of $4,000, compared to a loss of $2.8 million on revenues of $373,000 in the same quarter of 2007, but did start receiving its first revenues from ISO New England in the same month. The American Electric Power project is set to start construction in mid-2009.

With NRG Deal, eSolar Inches Toward Ausra Model in Solar Thermal

Michael Kanellos: February 23, 2009, 8:53 AM

It looks like eSolar is moving toward the equipment business too.

Power provider NRG Energy signed a deal with eSolar under which NRG has acquired the rights to build solar thermal power plants on three areas earlier secured by eSolar for $10 million. In turn, eSolar will provide the equipment for the project. The first solar plants from this deal should be operational by 2011. NRG will subsequently sell the power to utilities.

Under the deal, eSolar will become the equipment manufacturer and consultant, not the power provider.

If the contours of the deal sound familiar, that’s because they are. Earlier this year, solar thermal startup Ausra changed its business plans. The company had earlier planned to build solar thermal power plants with its own equipment. Revenue for Ausra would come from selling power. In January, however, Ausra said it would start to concentrate on selling solar thermal equipments and building out solar thermal plants.

The reason for the switch? Capital and time, said Ausra’s CEO Robert Fishman in an interview. Building and owning power plants takes several years and hundreds of millions in capital. Utilities and power providers have access to the kind of manpower and money needed to do that. Startups don’t.

Power plants "are way beyond" the capabilities of a startup, Fishman said. Besides, by shifting to power plants, Ausra could begin to garner revenue now, versus several years in the future when power begins to come online.

Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar has already raised $130 million. Still, it has been looking for additional funds. New CEO (and early investor) Bill Gross said in January that the company was looking to sell up to 10 percent of the company.

More will be released in a press conference later today.

The power versus equipment debate will likely be a big one this year. BrightSource Energy, another solar thermal company, says it will forge ahead with its plans to become a power provider. It recently signed a deal to build 1.3 gigawatts worth of solar thermal capacity. Southern California Edison will buy the power from BrightSource. BrightSource and Stirling Energy Systems also have other large solar thermal contracts.

Wind companies in Europe are also debating their options on this issue.

Companies will largely determine which way to go on this issue depending on the circumstances, said Travis Bradford, who heads up the Prometheus Group, in an interview last week. If they need money now, they sell equipment, which can be lucrative as well as cutthroat. If they have enough, they tend to look at the idea of being a power provider more closely.

“People fit their business model to whatever restraints they find themselves under,??? Bradford said.

Shading a Problem for Solar Installers

Ucilia Wang: February 23, 2009, 7:51 AM
Solar energy system owners and installers know that shading -- shadows caused by chimneys, tree branches or dust -- is a problem. How bad is the problem? National Semiconductor paid for a survey to quantify the issue, right before it’s due to start selling chips that it claims can recover some of the energy lost from shading. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company said the survey showed that 41 percent of solar installers have to deal with shading when they sell or install a system. Only a little over half of the surveyed, or 54 percent, said shading is not acceptable, suggesting that the issue might not be as dire as it seems. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research did the phone survey in January and spoke with 150 installers in the United States. The amount of energy lost from shade can be significant, National Semi said. A panel can produce more than 50 percent less power if just 10 percent of it is in the shadow or covered in debris, the chip company said. National Semi is proposing to fix this output problem with its SolarMargic branded power management chips. The chips would be attached to each panel to track the energy output and ensure that whatever a shaded panel can produce is harvested by the central inverter. In some current energy system designs, those shaded panels are bypassed, National Semi said. The company delayed its launch to later this spring. Last year, the company said it would start selling the chips at the end of 2008.

Algae Fuel: The Evolutionary Reason It Actually Works

Michael Kanellos: February 23, 2009, 7:33 AM
Everyone has heard the algae pitch by now. The rapid-growing, single-celled buggers produce an inordinate amount of oil. Approximately 30 percent of their body mass in a natural state is lipid content and genetic engineering and selective breeding can pop it up closer to 70 percent. The whole North Sea oil field was once a giant algal bloom. Algae proponents say they will ultimately be able to get 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil per acre per year from algae. That's better than cellulosic ethanol where the optimistic prognosis is 2,700 gallons. A couple of thousand square miles of desert land and you could provide all of the fuel the U.S. needs, in theory. Why so greasy? Evolution, says Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme. By producing oil, algae effectively could store food. Oil also allowed algae to float to the surface and thus generate more food through photosynthesis. Being single celled in that case helped quite a bit: untethered by roots, algae might accidentally drift toward sunlight, or survive on oil if it were mired under a rock. Solazyme says it will be in position to produce algae-based fuel that's competitively priced in two to three years. The industry, though, is going to have to go through a massive evolutionary crunch itself. There are several ways for producing algae -- bioreactors, open ponds, industrial fermenters -- as well as ways of extracting the water (when necessary) and the oil. Genetic modification or natural strains? That's an ongoing debate. To make money, several algae producers say they have to sell the meal -- the parts of the cell that aren't oil -- as pet food to make money. There are even debates over whether the algae can be milked, rather than killed, to serve your driving needs. Solix, one of the few fifty plus algae fuel companies out there that has received VC funds -- says it costs $33 a gallon to produce algae fuel right now and that's in optimal lab conditions.