TODD WOODY, Green Wombat, June 3, 2008
eSolar, the solar energy startup founded by Idealab’s Bill Gross and backed by Google, has signed a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison with 245 megawatts of green electricity.
The solar power plant will be built in 35-megawatt modules, with the first phase set to go online in 2011. As Green Wombat reported in April, eSolar scored $130 million in funding from Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, and other investors to develop solar thermal technology that Gross claims will produce electricity as cheaply as coal-fired power plants.
Like Ausra and BrightSource Energy – which have deals with PG&E – eSolar will use fields of mirrors to heat water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Gross says that eSolar’s software allows the company to individually control smaller sun-tracking mirrors – called heliostats – which can be cheaply manufactured and which are more efficient and take up less land than conventional mirrors. According to Gross, that means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines rather than out in the desert, lowering costs.
eSolar’s cost claims got Southern California Edison’s attention. “It was a competitively priced proposal,” Stuart Hemphill, the utility’s VP for renewable and alternative power, told Fortune. “We found the eSolar team very competent, motivated and willing to do a deal.”
“When it comes down to different solar technologies, competitive pricing is going to be an important part of the equation,” he adds. “They do offer a unique solution.”
eSolar is keeping mum about the exact location of the power plant, only saying it will be in the Antelope Valley region of Southern California.
One potential hitch: Getting eSolar’s electricity to Southern California Edison will depend on the construction of a major new transmission line. That line, the Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project, has been partially approved to date.
With the eSolar deal, the utility is hedging its bets. Back in 2005, Southern California Edison signed a highly publicized deal with Phoenix’s Stirling Energy Systems to buy up to 850 megawatts of solar electricity from massive solar power plants to be built in the Mojave Desert. (Around the same time, San Diego Gas & Electric signed a power purchase agreement with Stirling for up to 900 megawatts. ) Stirling is still perfecting its technology and has yet to file a license application for its first plant. But the company received a $100 million investment earlier this year and Hemphill says Stirling is moving forward.
“We expect that Stirling will meet its contractural obligations,” he says. “Solar thermal is definitely an emerging industry. It’s too early to tell which technologies will be the winners over the long run. It’s a time to be having a portfolio of different technologies so we can figure that out.”