BrightSource Energy Switches On $2.2 Billion Solar Project In California’s Mojave Desert

BrightSource Energy is an Oakland, California headquartered company, with its engineering and R&D operations located here in Israel, in Jerusalem. It designs, builds, finances, and operates utility-scale solar power plants. The company’s proprietary technology is based on concentrating the energy of the sun from thousands of individual mirrors at a central focal point in a very sophisticated way.

Arnold Goldman,    chairman & founder of BrightSource Energy / Getty

Arnold Goldman/ Getty

The resulting heat generated is used to make steam in a massive onsite boiler, which then drives a large turbine to convert the energy released into electricity.

On Thursday, BrightSource announced that its Ivanpah project in the Mojave desert in California had commenced full output for the first time from all of its three concentrating fields and their associated generating units.

Built at a total cost of US$2.2 billion, and partly funded by the United States Government with a US$1.6 billion loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy, the project is now producing 392 megawatts of solar power – enough to provide a town of nearly 150, 000 people with electricity.

The Ivanpah project is a joint venture between giant US power producer NRG Energy, BrightSource and tech giant Google that has taken over three years to build.

The project is the first to use BrightSource’s latest proprietary and innovative solar power tower technology to produce electricity, which includes literally hundreds of thousands of heliostats – or mirrors to you and me – that follow the sun’s trajectory during the day, as well as its solar field integration software and a solar receiver steam generator.

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David Ramm, Chairman and CEO of BrightSource said, “This is an exciting culmination of many years of hard work by all of our partners at Ivanpah. The completion of this world-class project is a watershed moment for solar thermal energy. With all three units now delivering power to our customers’ specifications, BrightSource has demonstrated its solar power technology at scale.”

The solar energy harnessed from two of Ivanpah’s units are being sold to Pacific Gas & Electric under long term 30 year power purchase agreements, while the electricity from the third is being sold to Southern California Edison under a similar long term contract.
Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability said at the throwing of the switch for the new facility, “Congratulations to the Ivanpah team for achieving commercial operation, ” adding: “At Google we invest in innovative renewable energy projects that have the potential to transform the energy landscape and help provide more clean power to businesses and homes around the world. Ivanpah is a shining example of such a project and we’re delighted to be a part of it.”

The new plant has been built by international construction giant Bechtel, but the key technology is Israeli, where many of BrightSource’s key operating and R&D people are employed from their home base in Jerusalem – though they also spend a lot of time on airplanes to wherever the action is.

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BrightSource Energy was co-founded by two veterans of the Israeli solar scene, Arnold Goldman and Israel Kroizer, in 2004 under the name Luz II. The original Luz Industries was a much earlier solar company they had both also partnered in, with another alumnus of the Israeli solar industry Avi Brenmiller, which went on to build solar plants in California in the nineteen eighties, using older technologies of the day that were cutting edge at the time.

Money raising for the new BrightSource project began in earnest in 2008, and to date BrightSource has issued more than US$615 million in equity, with eminent blue chip partners who include venture capital company VantagePoint Capital Partners; Morgan Stanley; French power company Alstom, and venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Arnold Goldman has now withdrawn from an active operating role with the company, which today is basically American led at the very top echelon on the commercial side of things. Goldman still owns about a 5% interest in the firm however, through his company LA Advisory Services, and Israel Kroizer remains Executive Vice President in charge of Engineering and Operations, and is President of BrightSource Israel.

The Ivanpah project has not been an easy ride as, for one thing, such solar thermal projects are exceptionally capital intensive at about US$5, 000 per kilowatt. This is much more expensive than the latest combined cycle gas fired plants, by a factor of four. The solar plant may last much longer, and have much lower marginal costs as well, but that is cold comfort when you are just putting in the money.

In addition, the price of natural gas in the US has fallen radically since inception of the project, with massive gas finds up and down the United States, using fracking techniques that squeeze gas out of seemingly solid rock formations. These have changed the US energy landscape completely.

Finally, the cost of competing conventional photovoltaic technologies has also plummeted, due to massive overproduction in China and elsewhere. In addition, much more efficient distributed photovoltaic solutions, sitting on domestic and industrial rooftops, are also coming back into fashion – just as they once were in Israel in the nineteen fifties where the solar revolution was very close to its beginning.


The relative economics of solar concentration technology have accordingly suffered considerably, therefore, in the time since the Ivanpah project was conceived, financed and now eventually built and brought on stream. Even Google has announced it will not invest in further such solar concentration projects within the United States. Of course it could still be that, in another five years or so, the pendulum could swing back again as all of these new technologies continue to evolve relative to each other.

Environmentally too, the project attracted many opponents, both before and after it was granted permits by the US Bureau of Land Management, for development on federal lands in Ivanpah Dry Lake, California just adjacent to the Nevada border.

Sitting on several thousand acres of natural, untouched, desert the project also, famously, interfered with the sex life of a very rare form of desert tortoise. The solution included moving all the tortoises to new homes, at a cost to the project’s developers of about US$1 million per tortoise.

Environmental groups have also clearly found themselves here in the awkward position of having to make a choice between their dual goals of protecting natural species, which is laudable, and promoting clean, renewable energy. It is not always easy to do both at the same time, they are finding.

However, with such issues still ongoing, it is unlikely that two further intended California projects using the technology will now go ahead.

israel_kroizer

Israel Kroizer

While the future of energy derived from solar concentration remains bright, future plants are likely now to be built in other parts of the world, in places where there is plentiful land available, lots of sun with low cloud cover and high insolation, and proximity to power grids, such as India and Israel. And with, let it be said, environmental groups not quite as paranoid in their opposition to “anything”.

BrightSource has indeed already just started to build a smaller, 121 megawatt plant, fundamentally similar to one of the three Mojave units, in Israel’s Negev desert, and there are other projects in the pipeline. While Israel also has plentiful natural gas, recently discovered, it certainly does not hurt its’ strategic position to have a toe in an additional significant potential energy resource. The new project should be completed by 2016, and French company Alstom is again a partner.

 

About Arnold Goldman
Arnold Goldman is a native of Rhode Island, and today is over 70 years old. He grew up there and in California, and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the University of California in Los Angeles. Afterwards he obtained a masters degree in computer science at the University of Southern California.

Upon graduating he went into business working on computer developments for the defence industry initially, at one time innovating key integrated circuit uses in Minuteman intercontinental missile systems. Later in 1972 he started his own word processing company, apparently a first for the era.

After a Catholic priest recommended the writings of Maimonides to him he and his wife Karen went to a class on the Jewish philosopher in Los Angeles, which led ultimately to them relocating to Israel.

His Luz Industries employed thousands of people building the first generations of solar power stations in the California desert. Twenty years later he has now done it all over again with BrightSource.

Goldman is a father of five and a grandfather of ten. He takes a serious interest in the religious Zionist group Aish HaTorah, but also in the Jerusalem College of Technology where he is a member of the international board of governors. “I am looking into doing ecological education within a Jewishly rich curriculum, ” he declared in an interview in 2010. “I want to put together Jewish thought and science.”

Sounds like a plan.

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