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.

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
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?

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

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 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?

Start early. You can’t ever assume you’re going to get through these [review] processes quickly.”

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 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.

Where you don’t locate is as important as where you do locate.”

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 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.

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.