eSolar has officially installed the nation’s first operational solar tower energy facility in the US. Expected to produce 5 megawatts of power for about 4,000 homes, the Lancaster, CA systems will start at 48 megawatts with 16 generating towers. The installation went up in 18 months, a time line, which, according to Pasadena mayor R. Rex Parris, is “literally unheard of.” Quick up-time never hurt anyone’s sales pitch, that’s for sure.
eSolar also has plans to install up to 500 megawatts of solar thermal generation (via CSP technology) in the next few years. Those plans outstrip current US solar thermal production, which is currently 450 megawatts, and would represent a major fraction of the 1.5 gigawatts of solar capacity in the US.
The company is run by Bill Gross, a multi-venture entrepreneur that until 2000, was focused in the software industry. Gross has other energy industry projects, such as RayTracker Inc., an offshoot company that provides tracking systems to the solar field and eSolar installations. Other idea projects by Gross include fuel efficient cars under the name Aptera Motors, and websites such as GoTo.com. eSolar is the main company of Gross’ solar endeavor, but the real stuff happens at Idealab, which like the name suggests, is the research and development wing of the whole outfit.
Truth be told, Gross’ companies have been in financial troubles before and required emergency bailout by stock holders, including a $50 million personal loan that Gross failed to repay, followed by a law suit filed by T. Rowe Price. Nevertheless, Gross has survived. And he still has partners - big ones at that - including PG&E, Southern California Edison Power and its installation partner, NRG Energy Inc., which builds eSolar’s installations. And that’s just a short list, so Gross is certainly generating the investment capital to push CSP technology to a new level.
I read about CSP technology in a Smithsonian insert sometime last year. The article claimed that CSP power is the most effective method of generating solar electricity to date, with the exception of energy storage, which has been the thorn in the paw of solar for as long as I can remember. Given the efficiency of PV cells versus that of solar thermal installations, solar thermal wins every time. Essentially, CSP is a really, really big solar thermal generator, and if logic follows (which is not an implied guarantee), CSP really could be it, although it still takes up sizable landmass to accomplish.
CSP plants use a field of mirrors that track the sun to focus energy on a thermal generating tower that stand between the mirror beds, not unlike standard solar thermal energy - but larger. By using repeating forms and low-cost materials, the installations are scalable to any size application and are relatively quick to install.
For more on eSolar’s low cost, easy-to-replicate “solution,” check out their website here.
Photo Credit: Technology Review