BrightSource Energy has landed its first-ever project to use its solar thermal technology for steam generation.

The Oakland, Calif.-based startup said Friday it has been tapped by Chevron to build a 29-megawatt thermal plant at Chevron's oil field in central California, said Keely Wachs, a spokesman for BrightSource.

BrightSource is better known as the startup that has inked 2.6 gigawatts worth of deals with California utilities to sell them electricity by building solar thermal power plants (see BrightSource, PG&E Sign 1.31GW Deal in California).

The solar thermal power market and solar thermal steam market rely on the same core ideas and technology: mirrors concentrate heat from the sun onto water in a container. The water then turns to steam. In a power plant, though, the steam gets piped into a turbine to generate electricity. In an industrial steam project, the steam is used directly to clean equipment, pump liquids from the ground or kill germs. Industrial steam projects are also significantly smaller and don't require the same sort of permitting headaches. Cutting out the generator, of course, additionally shaves costs.

"It gives us an opportunity for this potentially lucrative secondary market and help Chevron with carbon reduction," Wachs said.

BrightSource isn't alone in pursuing opportunities beyond power generation. Abengoa, which has built solar thermal power plants in Spain, has constructed a 2.4-megawatt solar thermal plant for Frito-Lay to make potato and corn chips in Modesto, Calif.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Ausra, which started off as a power plant builder and producer, changed its business plan in the past year to focus on supplying its solar thermal equipment to industrial operations such as coal mines and food processing plants. Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar will also sell equipment to industrial partners.

BrightSource began working on the project for Chevron in June, Wachs said. But Chevron didn't discuss it publicly until Thursday night, when it presented the project at a Coalinga City Council meeting. Chevron's oil field is near the city, within Fresno County.

Chevron has relied on natural gas-powered equipment to generate steam, which is pumped into wells for heating up the petroleum to make it easier to extract.

The oil giant is turning to solar thermal partly because the location is flat and gets lots of sun, a Chevron executives said at the council meeting (via Reuters). UPDATE: Chevron will continue to rely on natural gas to power steam production, however. The solar steam project is meant to demonstrate the technology -- Chevron will evaluate the project's performance and decide if it would build solar steam plants for other oil fields, said Kim Copelin, a spokeswoman for Chevron Technology Ventures, via an email.

Chevron also has invested in BrightSource via its Chevron Technology Ventures.

BrightSource plans to install 3,800 heliostats, each of which is consisted of two mirrors mounted on a tracker, on a 100-acre site owned by Chevron. Wachs declined to disclose the cost of the project, which is scheduled to come online in late 2010 or early 2011. 

BrightSource has pursued the Chevron project for over a year, he said. The project not only opens a new market for the solar thermal company, it also gives it a showcase for its equipment in America.

The company already has built a 6-megawatt demonstration plant in Israel to showcase its technology. But most of its power plant projects are in California and undergoing federal and state regulatory review. Rival eSolar, meanwhile, already has a 5-megawatt plant in the United States.

BrightSource plans to build the power projects in phases, starting with a 100-megawatt plant in the Mojave Desert. The company is farther along than just about anyone in securing permits to build solar thermal power plants in the California desert.

Construction could start before the end of the year, though it's more likely to be in early 2010, Wachs said. The company has applied for a loan guarantee to finance some of its power projects, though it hasn't said how much it's looking for.

Earlier this week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved two power purchase agreements between BrightSource and PG&E. 


Image courtesy of BrightSource Energy.