27 Oct 2010: Interview

In California’s Mojave Desert,
Solar-Thermal Projects Take Off

By year’s end, regulators are expected to approve a host of solar energy projects in California that could eventually produce as much electricity as several nuclear plants. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, John Woolard, the CEO of the company that has begun construction on the world’s largest solar-thermal project, discusses the promise — and challenges — of this green energy boom.

by todd woody

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and other dignitaries gathered in the Mojave Desert this week 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.

John Woolard
BrightSource
John Woolard
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. He sat down with Yale Environment 360 contributor Todd Woody at BrightSource’s Oakland, Calif., headquarters to talk about the future of Big Solar and the challenges the industry faces — from a woefully inadequate electricity grid to the imperative of minimizing water use — as multibillion-dollar projects finally begin to become a reality.

Yale Environment 360: Are we witnessing the birth of a major new solar industry in the United States?

John Woolard: I hope. The number I always go back to is that we have done 74,000 permits for oil and gas in the last 20 years and we finally have five or six for solar. That’s a good step forward. The agencies are learning how to permit, they’re learning how to move forward. It’s great for the industry and we can finally get some size and consequence.

e360: As the photovoltaic industry increasingly becomes dominated by overseas companies in China and elsewhere, does the sheer scale of these solar thermal projects in the U.S. give the country the opportunity to become the technological and market leader?

Woolard: Oh, yeah. Solar thermal is very different from [photovoltaic technology]. The power has different characteristics and is more reliable. They’re almost apples and oranges. Solar thermal has got very interesting
We don’t have a quantity and energy problem; It’s a collection and distribution problem.”
attributes and characteristics that make it unique.

In the U.S. we’re lucky. The southwestern U.S. has high desert, which means it’s closer to the sun, less atmosphere to go through. It’s the best solar resource anywhere, outside the Atacama Desert in Chile or a few places. Harnessing that resource effectively is the most important thing. So we don’t have a quantity and energy problem; it’s a collection and distribution problem.

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: Will California be an early proving ground to see which technologies deliver on their promises?

Woolard: It takes a lot to get a project built. You’ve got to have a technology that has been proven. It has to work within cost parameters that are acceptable, you have to have a power purchase agreement [with a utility], where given the costs your price is acceptable. Then you can bring investment in, and then you need the basics of transmission and permitting.

There are very few [companies] that have all that together right now. We’re fortunate, we’ve done it before, and we’ve put together that whole basket.

e360: But until they’re built and the switch is flipped and the electricity is generated, in some ways we won’t know if they live up to their promise, right?

Woolard: Projects have to get through a gauntlet of de-risking. It’s not like everybody that starts gets through that gauntlet. Given the conservative nature of the project finance community, I don’t see things moving forward that haven’t been very, very de-risked, where you know the cost, you know the price, you know the output. You know all of that before you start. You don’t take chances with a billion dollars.

e360: Ivanpah is not only the first solar power plant to break ground but it also holds the distinction as being the one that took the longest to be licensed. What were the key lessons you learned from the three-year state licensing process?

Woolard: One was start early. You can’t ever assume you’re going to get through these processes quickly. Early engagement with all the constituents is really key. Everyone from local communities, the labor community, the environmental community. All those stakeholders have a role in shaping the project and the project changes over time. It modifies, you learn. We
Start early. You can’t ever assume you’re going to get through these [review] processes quickly.”
reduced the footprint of the project. In the original application, it was 7,000 acres, then it went down to 4,000 acres. We reduced it further to 3,500 acres.

Originally, there were seven towers and we reduced that to three. We’re taking rare plants and we’re trimming vegetation, so whereas other people come in and bulldoze things, we’re actually taking vegetation and leaving it in place, which helps the soil and runoff and keeps the ecosystem as intact as you can.

We’re putting [mirrors] in and planting them every 20 or 30 feet. That’s just a post. We’re not doing concrete. We’re actually taking areas where you have rare plants and cordoning them off. We have a rare-plant nursery.

e360: When it comes to these projects, the new buzz phrase from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on down is “smart from the start.” What did BrightSource do that was smart from the start on Ivanpah, and what were the big things you would have done differently in retrospect?

Woolard: I’d say the smartest was that we worked with the BLM [the Bureau of Land Management] and a lot of the environmental constituents to think about the siting as early on as possible. Where you don’t locate is as important as where you do locate. Doing early surveys to make sure there are no endangered species, whether they are animals or plants. You’re always going to have something.

One of the things we did well was pick a site close to a highway, which had two transmission lines across it, had natural gas, was near a casino. We picked an area that was as relatively benign as you can get.

e360: Still, there are some groups still opposed to the project as they consider it to have an unacceptable impact on the threatened desert tortoise.

Woolard: Yes, I think some groups would rather have it somewhere else if they could. I think also most of the groups realize we’re all on the same side of the fight. In the end, we’re working on climate change issues. If plants don’t get [built] here and California can’t meet its 33 percent or 20 percent [renewable energy mandates], you can’t start building plants in India and China and other places.

e360: It seems that one thing BrightSource did that avoided a lot of controversy was the water issue. You chose to use “dry” cooling, which uses substantially less water than “wet” cooling.

Woolard: Best decision we ever made as a company. We were the only one that did it early. The fact that we’re doing it has forced others to do it. If you use 2,000 or 3,000 acre-feet of water [the equivalent of nearly 1
Where you don’t locate is as important as where you do locate.”
billion gallons] in the desert on an annual basis, that’s obscene.

We’re providing power for 150,000 homes, and we’re using water for 300 homes. That’s as water-efficient as anything you can do. Fossil plants still use wet cooling and everybody ought to know that. That needs to change. It ought to be a level playing field. It shouldn’t just be renewables that do this. Energy and water are so inextricably linked.

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.

e360: Is there enough existing transmission for your projects you have contracts for?

Woolard: No. Within the system, it takes seven to 10 years to advance and build transmission. So we started planning in 2006 for transmission in 2013 and 2014 and 2015. Our next sites, and sites after that, we know how we’re going to do things. But the system itself — you shouldn’t have to do what we have to do. You’re adding a lot of cost and inefficiency through this whole system.

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e360: Utilities are increasingly interested in energy storage to offset the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Is energy storage something BrightSource is looking at?

Woolard: We’ve been looking at it. In fact, if storage was super cheap you would see it in coal plants. You would be time-shifting power all over the place [storing electricity when demand is low and release at times of peak demand.]

If you look at where storage is being used, it’s in areas where they pay a lot for power — like Spain. Storage is not an engineering question at all. It’s a question of economics. We can integrate storage whenever it’s economically smart. It’s not necessarily economically smart yet, but it will be over time.

POSTED ON 27 Oct 2010 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Asia North America North America 

COMMENTS


"You’re adding a lot of cost and inefficiency through this whole system."

Well, there you have it. This doesn't sound like something our cash-strapped nation should be subsidizing.

The Interior Secretary has declared his department "open for business" when it comes to Big Solar on public lands, and today he was sinking a shovel at the Ivanpah site where BrightSource plans to build. Just days ago, biologists were still sweeping the perimeter of the site for threatened desert tortoises, and this place that is teeming with life will soon be "closed for business" as habitat.

This rush to plant energy factories across hundreds of thousands of acres is going to permanently convert public land into dedicated industrial zones. Don't let Mr. Woolard's facile remarks give you comfort--scattered rags of vegetation under looming power towers and lines of heliostats do not a desert ecosystem make.

Posted by Janine Blaeloch on 27 Oct 2010


"We picked an area that was as relatively benign as you can get."

This is just utterly untrue, and Woolard knows it. The unique ecological value of the Ivanpah site is a matter of public record. The California Energy Commission documented it thoroughly, admitted that the damage to the area's habitat, visual resources, and other values would be massive and irremediable, and then overrode those considerations and approved the project anyway.

If we're all on the same side, John, why do you misrepresent the arguments of the actual environmentalists?

Posted by Chris Clarke on 27 Oct 2010


One thing you can't help but notice in all the newswire stories about this today is everybody patting themselves on the back, for putting California back in the lead of renewable energy development.

What I don't see is any coverage of just how California will also lead the nation in destroying complete intact wilderness ecosystems in this mad rush to have national bragging rights.

You might as well forget the Mojave Desert as it exists today, by the time the politicians, industrialists, and carbonmentalist organizations are finished with it, it'll just be another pile of dirt and trash, interspersed with mountains covered with wind turbines and valleys covered with mirrors and transmission lines.

Bill Mcdonald
http://morongobillsbackporch.blogspot.com

Posted by Bill Mcdonald on 27 Oct 2010


Great work BrightSource! It's about time we move forward on sensible clean energy projects on a large scale. And, kudos to you, BLM / Salazar, CA's CEC and all other stakeholders involved for minimizing the ecological impact as much as economically reasonable. There won't be any ecosystem left in Mojave if we don't take immediate and massive action to curb GHG pollution...

Posted by Troy Helming on 27 Oct 2010


As an airline pilot, I often fly over the great southwest deserts. 3,500 acres is nothing from 35,000 feet in the great scheme of things. I consider myself an environmentalist but to me it is obvious that the good far outweighs the bad. Who would dare say that we should not continue building solar and wind farms? It has been said that with todays solar technology, we could provide 100% of our (The US) electrical needs with an area 93 by 93 miles. Plot this out on a map of the US and it takes up no more room than that of a pencil point! Would these naysayers have us continue using fossil fuels? We should take up Al Gore's challenge and derive 100% of our electrical energy from renewables within 15 years!.....after all we went to the moon in less than a decade.

Posted by Russell Judge on 28 Oct 2010


"We don’t have a quantity and energy problem; It’s a collection and distribution problem."

As a reporter for Powering a Nation, I researched solar energy extensively. Its potential is extremely high, especially in regions such as the Mojave desert. But transmission and efficiency of cells still remains an issue. Investments like this can allow to further advancements. Looking forward to see how it unfolds.

Luca Semprini
www.poweringanation.org

Posted by Luca Semprini on 28 Oct 2010


Ivanpah's licensing took longer than other projects for two reasons: 1) it began before the decision to fast-track the licensing of projects on federal land and 2) the Ivanpah project site is by far the most pristine. All projects have their issues but the Ivanph site was one of particular diversity and sensitivity. It's proximity to the highway and casino may limit its value to the most disturbance-sensitive wildlife but the site is teeming with desert tortoise and rare plants, relative to most (or all) of the other projects under review. This complicated the licensing by forcing regulators to require a reconfigured alternative, as well as numerous other delays, all of which is a matter of public record (CEC large solar projects, Ivanpah). A more disturbed site with fewer issues would certainly have cut the licensing time (and mitigation costs). They learned this the hard way, and I suspect that in the future they will make an extra effort to identify a site with fewer issues.

Posted by Anders on 28 Oct 2010


The comment "at peak output it's equivalent to several nuke plants" is a rather misleading. How many hours of the day (or hours of the year) will this "peak" occur? Except for maintenance, the nuke runs round the clock.

We really need to be talking about metrics such as annual average to get meaningful comparisons.

Posted by dan houck on 01 Nov 2010


@dan houck: If anything, that comment is misleading in the opposite direction; the output of nuclear plants follows the daily cycle of demand, which in places like California happens to be quite correlated to daylight, so CSP solar power gives you a not dissimilar output curve.

Posted by Thomas Britz on 01 Nov 2010


While it's true that solar and wind turbine farms do have environmental impacts and risks to varying degrees, the same is true of any power plant, whether it uses coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear material. Hydroelectric dams exact their own toll. Also, while fossil-fueled power plants may have smaller physical footprints in terms of their actual structures, the pollution they produce travels over a vastly larger area, creating risks to the health of all living things, not just humans. Tidal power and geothermal energy carry their own environmental tolls, too.

Of course, California's election, just hours away as I write this, could turn everything completely topsy-turvy if Proposition 23 passes (as could Proposition 26 on the same ballot, perhaps). If either or both of those propositions pass, then I'd say all bets are off for solar and wind in the state for at least the short--to-medium term.

Posted by Mekhong Kurt on 01 Nov 2010


It is gratifying to hear Woolard, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and many others throughout the West begin talking about a “smart from the start” approach to renewable energy development on public lands.

The Nevada Wilderness Project has been working on a Smart from the Start concept since 2008. We and other conservationists around the country concluded that Smart from the Start renewable energy projects are sited on lands already developed or disturbed, and on land with low habitat value for wildlife. They are constructed with minimal impacts to cultural or archaeological resources and built near existing or planned transmission lines. Facilities must use appropriate technology (for example, least water-intensive.)

And planning for Smart from the Start renewable projects should be transparent, with early and close cooperation between developers, permitting agencies, local governments, and conservation groups.

At the Nevada Wilderness Project, we also believe that siting good energy projects in the right places isn’t enough; we see the renewable energy boom coming to the West as an opportunity for a habitat conservation boom in equal or greater proportions. Simply put, we want to reap the economic, environmental and political benefits of renewable energy development in Nevada and protect habitats at the same time.

So for example, our staff helped craft two pieces of pending federal legislation that will grant approval for constructing two large-scale solar projects in good locations just north of Las Vegas. In addition, the bills would establish a royalty program based on the sale of that electricity, with 25% going to the county where the development is located, 25% to the state, and 35% to establish a new Renewable Energy Mitigation, Fish and Wildlife Fund that will go toward conservation in the state where the development is (not into the general treasury). The remaining 15% will help fund the BLM’s processing of renewable energy permits for 10 years; after that, the 15% will go to the Fund.

This is an example of supporting two large solar developments sited in environmentally appropriate locations and making gains for additional conservation beyond the required development site mitigation.

As we have engaged developers and agency employees in the planning of various projects in Nevada, we have learned that a “smart from the start” is not only about creating a checklist of best practices or criteria for good projects. It is also about a planning process that seeks to ensure mutual success for the developers who are investing millions, and for habitat conservationists leveraging their limited resources—both in the face of climate change.

Posted by Charlotte Overby on 01 Nov 2010


@Thomas Britz
Your logic escapes me. Using 'peak output' as a metric makes little sense when it isn't even defined when, or for how long, that peak period is.

Also, it is true that California electric consumption is highest during the day (like most places), but it is relatively flat from 8am to 8pm. Does this correspond to the 'peak' period for solar thermal power? I would suspect not.

I'm not arguing against solar thermal power (as a matter of fact I like the idea). I'm just asking for factual and fair information and a little less boosterism.

Posted by dan houck on 02 Nov 2010


I think they have an opportunity to make the economics work with the plant for two reasons:

1) Ivanpah uses a combined turbine process that includes Natural Gas generation to supplement the solar thermal power
2) unlike previous solar thermal projects which never were economically feasible, Ivanpah benefits from higher energy costs, green electron demand, and decades worth of experience gleaned from Federally funded white elephant solar thermal projects

By the way, Ivanpah will NOT replace multiple nuke plants - that reference refers to all the combined solar thermal plants on the drawing board.

Posted by Henry Buttal on 08 Nov 2010


We need something like this in Chile! Please, help us to stop the building of Hidroaysen. PATAGONIA SIN REPRESAS

Posted by Francisco Araya on 15 May 2011


This project is one of the projects, everybody is expecting from the US. The US must be a sample for the world, not as number one oil consumer, but as number one renewable energy producer/consumer. Therefore I can only congratulate everybody, who have played a (positive) role in this project. It has to be kept in mind, that renewable energy is creating jobs not only by the sector alone. For example I am preferring goods from Germany, since I know that these are produced with more renewable energy. Additional to the labour created by the renewable energy sector, my way of thinking will also create jobs and I think one of the reasons Germany is such a good export country is that I am not the only one.

Posted by Eric on 12 Jun 2011


Interesting idea. We don't have any solar plants like that is Cairns, although thousands of Queenslanders are taking the government up on their solar rebate incentive to get grid connected solar at home as we speak.

It may not work everywhere, but I am proud to say we are doing our part.

Posted by Cairns Solar on 21 Aug 2011


Pipeline salt water to the facility, boil it and then cool the steam into fresh water as the salt will separate. You will now have both electricity and fresh water too! Use the fresh water for irrigation and drinking.

Posted by Ohan Karagozian on 15 Mar 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Todd Woody, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is an environmental and technology journalist based in California who writes for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Grist and other publications. He previously was a senior editor at Fortune magazine, and the business editor of the San Jose Mercury News. In an earlier article for Yale Environment 360, he wrote about the battle unfolding in California over plans to build dozens of multi billion-dollar solar power plants in the Mojave Desert.
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